From the shock of last spring, we moved on to the uncertainty of the summer that has lasted well into autumn. In Europe, after a timid start, most countries are on the point of restarting, while in Spain, the 34 professional orchestras started in September with seasons and auditoriums adapted to health standards, just as the country's major opera houses are staging productions successfully. We wanted to find out what has made this difference possible, which is especially relevant if we compare it, up to a certain point, with the rest of Europe. To this end, we have talked to the heads of some of the most important orchestras and theatres.

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Stalls at the Liceu
© Gran Teatre del Liceu

As we know, the initial shock of stopping all non-essential activity and locking ourselves up at home was hard. Valentí Oviedo, general manager of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, says that they experienced it with particular difficulty because it caught them two days before the much-anticipated premiere of Katharina Wagner’s production of Lohengrin. However, all the organisations set to work so that when lockdown was lifted, they could resume activity. Nathaly Ossa, coordinator of the Spanish Association of Symphonic Orchestras (AEOS), points out three aspects as the driving force behind the return to concert activity: the maintenance through this period of financial support (Spanish professional orchestras are publicly funded), the health authorities having allowed the opening of theatres and auditoriums (when in other countries they have not), and the proactivity of the managers and musicians of the orchestras. Andrés Lacasa, manager of the Galician Symphony Orchestra, also highlights the fact that financial and administrative support was maintained as being critical when the time came for a restart. Félix Palomero, manager of the Spanish National Orchestra and Chorus, explains that the Ministry of Culture, through INAEM, published a guide for the return to activity in the performing arts and music, so there has been an almost joint action to return to activity in this area. Although the regulations are different in each autonomous community, nowhere has a return been prohibited.

Therefore, throughout the whole lockdown period, management teams worked with the aim of getting the orchestras on stage as soon as possible: they met, studied the measures, informed themselves with other countries about solutions to possible problems. Each orchestra, in turn, had to apply the health regulations corresponding to its autonomous community. When lockdown was lifted on 21 June, the 34 orchestras had the health protocols ready and resumed their activity. The National Orchestra played on 12th and 14th July at the Granada Festival, which was held partly online, partly with an audience (between 25th June and 26th July); the Galicia Symphony played on 23th and 25th July. The National Symphony also participated in the Santander Festival on 29th and 30th August.

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Premiere of Magrané's Obreda with National Orchestra of Spain and David Afkham
© Rafa Martín | OCNE

Everyone agrees that we should not forget that the positive attitude of some highly motivated musicians has also spurred a return to the stage. In line with this, Palomero provides a very interesting reflection on Spanish orchestras. Some have a long tradition (National Orchestra, 1937; Bilbao, 1920; Sinfónica de Madrid, 1903; Barcelona, 1944). But the majority were formed in the eighties and especially in the nineties (the Galician Symphony is from 1992) and from the beginning, the educational activity of these orchestras has been very important and they have assumed a relevant social role, forming a modern and dynamic orchestral movement which from the beginning has been very much linked to society.

Health standards and regulations

All the auditoriums and theatres are working in accordance with the health protocols established by their autonomous community, which include the use of masks, maintaining distance between people at all times, hand and surface hygiene, etc. At the same time, this is not new, we must reduce the number of people who coincide in an enclosed space and maintain separation between them or between different households. Here the difficulties are multiplied, among other things because you may find yourself with a different audience limit from one week to the next, which has an impact on the number of tickets on sale. For example, in the Auditorio de Tenerife, the same percentage of 25% has been maintained since June, amounting to some 400 seats (which varies according to the distribution of the groups) out of the 1600. The Liceu has permission for 75% but they are operating with 50% of the capacity. According to its general director, it is as important to have security as it is to make people feel secure. In Madrid the capacity is 75%. A lower example is the RTVE Orchestra, which is making 38% of seats available due to the layout and access of its hall.

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Galician Symphony Orchestra at the Coliseum, with capacity for the whole orchestra

The stages, rehearsals and internal spaces of theatres and auditoriums are all governed by the question of the number of people that can be in an enclosed space, as well as social distance and the use of masks. At the Liceu, they constantly carry out Covid-19 tests in order to be able to act quickly when faced with a positive result. In the National Orchestra, they have chosen to keep 2 metres between musicians. With this distance it is not necessary to impose a quarantine in case of contagion on the people who have shared the space. In the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra, they keep one and a half metres between the musicians, with the exception of the wind and string instruments for which two metres have been established. From this starting point, the next problem arises: who and how many can fit on the stage and what can be played. 

Artistic project

In large measure, It has been necessary to design and prepare new programming. This is dictated by the instrumental layouts that can be put on stage. While the restrictions might damage the artistic quality of programmes, one hopes that this will not be the case and, as Oviedo says, it is time to be creative. It is a good opportunity to offer works and formats different to the usual ones and to open up the range of the orchestral repertoire. In addition, solutions must be found to the frequent cancellations by soloists, usually as a result of travel restrictions or quarantine. The National Orchestra, which has been able to maintain its programme for the first quarter dedicated to Beethoven, has managed to keep 35% of the artists with whom it had agreed concerts and has also kept all its commitments to composers as regards commissions. Their programming endeavours to preserve the spirit of their artistic project.

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Gustavo Dudamel conducts a concert version of Il trovatore at the Liceu
© A. Bofill | Gran Teatre del Liceu

The problems and difficulties are daily; the situation is complex and changing. As Palomero says, the keys to staying afloat in this sea of constant restrictions and risks are flexibility, speed of  decision-making, well-established contingency plans and a lot of communication skills. Oviedo is optimistic and confident in the strong resilience of the Liceu’s community. After an uncertain September and a situation that had to be adapted quickly, they established four principles for action. "Health is the most important thing,” says Oviedo, “then preserving the artistic project, encouraging imagination and flexibility. The organisation has to be, more than ever, generous and have the capacity to adapt." After giving up on the planned start of the season with Eugene Onegin, not least because of the difficulty of accommodating the subscribers in the face of the restrictions or not even being able to place tickets on sale because no-one knew what space would be available, they have indeed shown flexibility and imagination. The season started with a beautiful recital by Radvanovsky and Beczała and continued with a Trovatore conducted by Dudamel and a production of Don Giovanni by Christof Loy. While public activity has been halted in November, performances are being filmed and broadcast on YouTube. They are rehearsing La traviata for December, a production which adds two extraordinary Violettas, Lisette Oropesa and Pretty Yende to those already cast, allowing them to add more performances to compensate for the fact that only 50% of seats can be sold.

So what do audiences make of it all?

In Galicia, even during lockdown, people phoned the orchestra just as normal to ask when the concerts would start. All the people in charge to whom I spoke agreed that the attitude and collaboration of audiences have been exemplary, even with the difficulties and the required health protocols; they are very grateful for this, bearing in mind that preserving health and safety has become their priority. It is appreciated that people come with great enthusiasm, enjoy themselves enormously and are grateful to be able to attend. However, orchestras have seen a fall in the sales of season tickets, and most are only announcing the programmes and putting tickets on sale one quarter at a time. On the other hand, last minute sales have shot up, to the point that on some occasions the start of the concert has been delayed because people were still buying tickets. And while audience capacity is lower than usual, concerts are selling out. The Tenerife Symphony Orchestra, in its concert on 30th October with Manuel Blanco and Anna Rakitina, decided to offer a second performance because the tickets for the first one sold out straight away. In the case of the Liceu, the season tickets fell by only 11%, which is a good figure, given the circumstances. Its faithful and demanding audience, as described by Oviedo, has poured in and offered its full support.

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Anna Rakitina and Manuel Blanco on a concert on October 30th
© Miguel Barreto | Auditorio de Tenerife

Social projects

Orchestras’ social work in their communities has not taken a back seat: this year, it has been more important than ever. Carmen Kemper, technical secretary of the Tenerife Symphony, comments that they have adapted their usual school tour programmes. This year they are recording them, with narration by Ana Hernández Sanchiz, and sending the recordings to schools to be worked on in class, with accompanying teaching materials. In previous years, they have visited prisons and senior citizens' centres: they will do so more frequently this year. In small groups and possibly from patios and passageways, they will bring music to people who are currently very isolated. Together with NGO Músicos por la Salud (Musicians for Health), AEOS has arranged for the rights to broadcast 30 hours of music a week in hospitals, senior citizens' centres and social health centres.

Social networks

Social networks are a good ally in these circumstances where communication with the public is important and must be fluid. Orchestras such as the Galicia Symphony, which uploads video recordings of their concerts, have seen how the community around their YouTube channel has increased in these months. They are followed from all over the world and their videos receive 60,000 views every two days.

There have been no outbreaks of Covid-19 in any auditorium, orchestra or theatre, just some isolated cases that have been dealt with following established protocols. No doubt, throughout these months there have been errors and actions that can attract criticism, given that the situation is completely new, complex and delicate. Financial support has been a determining factor in the return to auditoriums, but there is no doubt that it has been the joint activity of the different sectors and the effort of the artistic community which has made possible something which has been impossible in some other countries: keeping music live.

Translated from Spanish by David Karlin