Following the spread of the coronavirus, Germany took action in March 2020 and since then seemingly everything has been divided into two categories: essential and non-essential. This categorisation as well as strict lockdown and social distancing rules led to the cancellation of all upcoming events, including concerts, opera and theatre performances. Culture, including theatres, cinemas, museums, concert halls and other music venues were deemed “non-essential”. Theatres were closed and thousands of theatre staff, artists, musicians suddenly bereft of their income for the following months.

Socially distanced audience at Oper Graz © Oliver Wolf
Socially distanced audience at Oper Graz
© Oliver Wolf

While theatre lovers all over the world have been deprived of their shared passion, the only compensation was offered through live streams and recorded opera performances. Personally, I was hesitant to sit alone in front of my screen and watch recording after recording, quickly becoming distracted and eventually giving up. And I'm sure I'm not alone with my sentiments. I kept wanting to enjoy all those online offers, but it just made me miss the real thing even more and left me with one question: Is this how we have to enjoy theatre from now on? To me, theatre is a shared experience, demanding your complete presence and attention. Sitting in the auditorium among hundreds of people who look forward to the same experience, the anticipation of the curtain rising and then completely immersing yourself in the music. 

And it's more than that. It's also an occasion to meet like-minded people, bond with them over your common admiration for a singer, exchange the latest gossip or rumours about which operas will be premiering next season. I know people who plan ahead whole seasons, memorising their favourite theatre's programme, making sure not to miss the productions they want to see. They have dozens of events lined up in various cities all over Europe. They travel for a certain singer, a need to see that rarely performed opera and pay good money to be part of a prestigious summer festival. I am one of those people. I consider opera my passion but also a means to travel, explore new places, discover new music, singers, conductors – I wouldn't want to miss it for the world!

Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden © Raffael Neff
Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden
© Raffael Neff

Approximately nine weeks after theatres had to close due to COVID-19, our government slowly started easing up on the restrictions. Under strict regulations public events became possible again and a few theatres in Germany opened their doors to the public. One of them was the Staatstheater Wiesbaden. Being known for their International May Festival – usually attracting audiences from all over the world with well known singers – they decided to rework their programme. Instead of classic opera productions they took a different approach to guarantee health and safety for both their artists and audiences. The programme consisted of song recitals and chamber music concerts, performed by members of the Wiesbaden ensemble as well as internationally renowned singers such as Catherine Foster, Michael Volle, Florian Boesch, and many more.

They were allowed to sell a maximum of 200 tickets per concert for the Main Theatre which usually allows for approximately 1.000 guests. The audience was asked to wear masks upon entering the theatre and while being shown their seats. Only every second row was to be occupied as well as leaving at least three empty seats between each person or group. Once seated we were allowed to take off the mask to freely enjoy the concert. The musicians and singers too, were keeping a safe distance.

My personal experience with the abrupt cancellation of all theatre performances was certainly met with mixed feelings. Understanding this as a necessary measure to prevent the virus from spreading further, I was naturally saddened to have this important part of my life omitted. And yet, when I heard about Wiesbaden opening its doors again, I was reluctant to buy a ticket, wondering if it isn't too soon, wondering if all health and safety measures can be met and even wondering whether it would be selfish to enjoy myself during a pandemic.

Michael Volle und Gabriela Scherer © Andreas Etter
Michael Volle und Gabriela Scherer
© Andreas Etter

Luckily, my equally opera-fanatic husband didn't hesitate and bought us tickets for a concert with Michael Volle and Gabriela Scherer singing excerpts from Der Fliegende Holländer and Arabella. Still not a hundred percent convinced I came along. All doubts were diminished once I took my seat, the lights went out and the musicians entered the stage. I didn't know how much I've missed all of this until I heard them sing, felt the music and all the emotions that come with it and to actually be able to show appreciation, applauding and cheering. This is theatre and no live stream will ever be able to beat the feeling of an actual live performance. Needless to say, this evening was followed by attending three more concerts to relive this experience I've missed so much.

These concerts are only a small step towards making theatre a part of our lives again and highlighting how important art and culture is. In 2014, UNESCO declared “Theatres and Orchestras in Germany and their socio-cultural spaces” a Nationwide Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The German theatre and culture landscape with its approximately 140 public theatres is second to none with its extraordinary diversity of artistic forms of expression and events of all kinds. 1.195 million people work in the cultural and creative industries (in Germany). In 2018 the German culture and creative industry created a turnover of 168.3 billion euros generating a share of 3% of gross domestic product. Looking at those figures I don't think we can afford to call theatre non-essential – neither to our economy, nor to our own well-being.