With the most stringent lockdowns lifted and summer holidays over, the classical music world has spent September tentatively resuming performances in front of real audiences, with no small level of trepidation. Every country has the same three tools for infection control: testing, distancing and mask-wearing. But each has created its own rules, with a striking variety of ways in which those tools are used.

This article sketches live events across Western Europe: the disparate gamut of cancellations, programme changes, audience safety protocols (I haven’t described the many video offerings). Inevitably, I’ve only covered a tiny fraction of the venues, and the situation changes so frequently that any details could be out of date by the time you read this. But the overall sense of what’s happening should still be valid.

Amsterdam Sinfonietta at the Concertgebouw © Milagro Elstak
Amsterdam Sinfonietta at the Concertgebouw
© Milagro Elstak

The shape of seasons

A small number of seasons have remained broadly unscathed. Along with other Austrian opera houses, the Wiener Staatsoper is presenting more or less exactly what it originally announced in April: many productions suffer from quarantine-induced changes of soloist, but little else. Most of the high profile concerts at Vienna’s Musikverein are unharmed, although there are cancellations for visiting orchestras and smaller events. The vast majority of institutions in France are putting on a full or nearly full season (we will be reviewing almost as many events this month as in a normal October). There’s one high profile exception: earlier in the year, the Paris Opera decided to bring forward a programme of building works originally planned for 2021; as a result, both their stages are closed and a few concerts take place in front of the safety curtain. The Paris Philharmonie has maintained a full schedule, but travel restrictions on visiting orchestras and artists have forced many changes of programme or personnel (occasionally without the audience being informed, as in the unexpected sight of Esa-Pekka Salonen on the Orchestre de Paris podium last week). Many Swiss seasons, such as Lugano Arte e Cultura and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, are also untouched. Finnish National Opera have been forced to shuffle programmes around – not least to fit in premières postponed from last spring – but have been able to maintain most productions (an exception being Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, whose huge orchestral forces made it impossible).

Things in Germany are more mixed: the Federal Republic has 16 states, which means 16 different safety protocols and 16 different subsidy regimes. Bayerische Staatsoper has been able to keep much to its originally advertised programme, other houses have managed with only a few substitutions. In Berlin, concerts continue with limited audience size.

The United Kingdom is also mixed, but with a far greater preponderance of cancellations. The Royal Opera has ditched its main season altogether, replacing it with a faint scattering of smaller events. London’s two main concert centres, the Southbank and the Barbican, are closed, although both hope to reopen, with the Barbican scheduling a Bryn Terfel concert this week-end and the return of the London Symphony Orchestra in late November. The brightest area is chamber, with Wigmore Hall putting on something close to a full season (although with many changes) and Kings Place also active. Outside the capital, the Bournemouth Symphony and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic are rare examples of orchestras performing to live audiences; many others have suspended operations. Ireland is almost completely closed down, with Dublin’s status recently moved back to “Level 3”, which bans events altogether.

<i>Covid fan tutte</i> at Finnish National Opera © Finnish National Opera
Covid fan tutte at Finnish National Opera
© Finnish National Opera

Contrary to its image in the English-speaking press, Sweden has imposed a limit of 50 people for indoor events. Gothenburg Symphony has been able to play outdoor concerts in small ensembles through the summer, but they are not playing concerts in the main hall.The government is due to make an announcement next week as to whether the limit will be relaxed to 500 from 15th October: if that happens, Gothenburg hope to resume concerts with audiences soon afterwards and Stockholm Concert Hall to increase their audiences from the present 50.

In most places, uncertainty rules. Dutch National Opera has scheduled something close to a normal season, but is not currently selling tickets past November. The Concertgebouw has been welcoming audiences of 350, but with cases rising, it has just been announced that this is to be reduced to 250. At La Scala, there is just one staged opera announced for November and a handful of concerts: they expect to make an announcement in October but for a horizon of only a few months (Milan’s LaVerdi orchestra, in contrast, has concerts programmed up to 20th December).

Some have taken the drastic step of relocating to bigger venues. In La Coruña, the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia has moved from its usual home at the Palacio de la Opera to the Coliseum, an arena which would normally seat 8,500 and which has been equipped with an acoustic shell: this permits permitting them to play a full Mahler 9 to their normal audience size. The Opéra de Bordeaux has made a similar move from the Grand Théâtre to the city’s Auditorium.

Spaced out strings for the Berlin Philharmonic © Stephan Rabold
Spaced out strings for the Berlin Philharmonic
© Stephan Rabold

The shape of what’s on stage

One thing is common throughout Europe: orchestral musicians don’t get to sit close to each other, so the days of a pair of string players sharing a score are well and truly over, at least for the time being. Some orchestra members and even conductors have been required to wear masks; there have been some installations of perspex screens, especially around wind players.  The exception is Vienna, where the Staatsoper abandons the idea of controlling infection in the pit in favour of a strict testing regime to ensure that orchestra members are uninfected before they arrive in the first place.

Fears about the impact this would have on togetherness seem to have faded with experience: although orchestral players dislike the enforced changes, most have adapted to them with great success. But the increased spacing has restricted the available repertoire because there simply isn’t enough space on the stage to fit the largest orchestras: Mahler or Bruckner symphonies have disappeared from the Bavarian Radio Symphony playbills. Others have used orchestral reductions of the works originally planned: LaVerdi, which is limited to 35 musicians on stage, has even identified a chamber version of Mahler's Fourth Symphony.

The situation gets more severe when moving to choral works and worse still when it comes to opera. Even if you reduce the number of players, it’s pretty much impossible to ventilate most orchestra pits to an acceptable standard, so opera houses have resorted to a variety of methods: increasing the pit size (Dutch National Opera), beaming the orchestral sound in from an offsite location (Zürich), clearing the audience from the stalls to make space for the orchestra (Rouen), pre-recording the chorus (Garsington). Semperoper Dresden has abandoned the idea of staged opera altogether in favour of a shortened opera-in-concert concept.

Distancing between singers on stage is problematic. In some productions, it’s the stage directors who have responded: Teatro Real’s socially distanced Traviata was the model of a creative response, making a dramatic feature of Alfredo’s physical distance from the infected Violetta. Elsewhere, it’s been up to the organisers to arrange for the required social bubbles. In the ballet world, dancers who are couples in real life have found themselves in demand, permitted to perform pas de deux in unconstrained close contact.

The abandonment of intervals in many venues has also caused changes of programme: in France, the typical “overture-concerto-interval-symphony” pattern has commonly shrunk to “concerto-symphony”.

Missing seat rows, perspex screens between social groups at Garsington © Julian Guidera | Garsington Opera
Missing seat rows, perspex screens between social groups at Garsington
© Julian Guidera | Garsington Opera

The audience experience

Although there’s been strong international consensus on the need for social distancing, there has been no common standard for what the distance should be. The United Kingdom and Ireland have been the most conservative at 2 metres; the remainder are split between the World Health Organisation recommendation of 1 metre (Austria, France, Finland, Italy) and the intermediate 1.5 metres (Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Spain). Norway, idiosyncratically, goes for “1 metre shoulder to shoulder”, and Sweden’s uniquely libertarian approach asks you to keep your distance but doesn’t specify what that distance should be. Venues have been at pains to help audience members to obey the rules, with one-way systems for entrances and exits and/or staggered entrance times (Teatro Real in Madrid). In the Netherlands, the only country surveyed not to enforce mask-wearing, the 1.5m distances are carefully blocked out on the floor and audience members are escorted to their seats.

The distance requirement is translated into seating patterns in different ways. The most common is the “chequerboard pattern”, used because it provides the best hall utilisation for any given minimum distance between audience members. Leaving alternate rows empty is common; the Paris Philharmonie allocates seat rows but not numbers, requiring groups of listeners to take the first available seat, leaving a one seat gap from their neighbouring group. In the UK, Garsington Opera allowed a two seat gap and also ingeniously separated groups laterally with perspex screens. Some countries have imposed blanket limits on the number of attendees at an indoor concert (100 in Ireland, 200 in Italy); others have limits that are a function of the size of the hall (75% in Madrid, 70% in Barcelona). Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie is welcoming 628 concertgoers, less than a third of its usual 2,100. La Monnaie in Brussels is hoping to increase from its current 568, just under half of normal.

However, some venues and their governing authorities have argued that leaving empty seats is unnecessary, because what matters is the likelihood of a nearby person breathing on you, which isn’t a simple function of distance. Lugano Arte e Cultura are welcoming a full house: director Etienne Reymond argues that this is no more of a risk than sitting masked in an airline seat, which has been widely permitted.

Rows of seats make way for tables at the Concertgebouw © Ronald Knapp
Rows of seats make way for tables at the Concertgebouw
© Ronald Knapp

Many venues (particularly the ones with sparse seat allocation) permit you to take your mask off when in your seat. Others do not: the picture of rows of masked audience members is now a common one. Belgium, France, Italy and Switzerland require mask-wearing throughout the performance, although levels of enforcement can be low in some places. Everyone requires you to wear a mask when entering or leaving the auditorium (the Netherlands were an exception until this week, but that's about to change). Most accept any form of mask, although Berlin's Boulez Saal has required the N95 standard (permitting some exceptions). Many halls impose procedures at point of entry: venues in Italy require temperature checks, use of hand sanitiser and electronic filling in of contact tracing forms. Almost all venues make toilets available, many close their cloakrooms (Royal Opera, BOZAR), most close their catering. 

Paper programmes have largely disappeared: Teatro Real and Barcelona’s Liceu are among the many houses who provide online programmes that you can access by aiming your phone at a QR code. Komische Oper Berlin are an exception.

Quirks

The country most comfortable with the social distancing agenda is undoubtedly Finland, as epitomised by Joel Willans, aka “Very Finnish Problems”, who has a flow chart entitled “When you’ve practiced social distancing your entire life but aren’t sure of the new rules.” Finnish black humour rules: when Esa-Pekka Salonen's Walküre had to be postponed for a second time, he and Finnish National Opera's artistic director Lilli Paasikivi hastily created a Covid fan tutte, assembling the cream of Finnish opera to perform a topical libretto.

But the most idiosyncratic pandemic responses have come from Austria: the ban on use of fans at the Salzburg Festival or Wiener Staatsoper’s plea to its audience to refrain from yelling “bravo”. Quirkiest of all is the Austrian social distancing rule of 1 metre or “the size of a baby elephant”. The baby elephant in question, Kibali, was born last year in Vienna’s Schönbrunn Zoo; I'm not sure what to make of the fact that the Austrian economy minister has been made her godmother. Here is the official video of her naming ceremony:

The biggest fear of music industry professionals is that in spite of all their efforts, audiences will be too timid to return. So far, that hasn’t happened, although Komische Oper note that bookings are being made far later than usual, mainly within ten days of the performance. In spite of the recent increase in cases, the evident joy of returning audience members and advances like the sanction and rollout of new antigen tests give grounds for hope.

I’ll leave you on an optimistic note with the most endearing and most multilingual welcome back to audiences, courtesy of the Brussels Philharmonic: