When Covid struck New York in March, soprano Lisette Oropesa was four performances into a run of La traviata at The Metropolitan Opera. Opening night had seen The New York Times critic rave about her “exquisite singing, youthful allure, affecting vulnerability and, by the end, bleak intensity”. Little did she know her next performance wouldn’t be until four months later – still as Violetta – on a chequerboard set with singers restricted to specific zones and with a chorus wearing face masks.

Lisette Oropesa (Violetta) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Lisette Oropesa (Violetta)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

“We heard about the Met cancellation on social media,” Oropesa tells me over Skype from Munich. “I go straight for the jugular. I’m not passive about things, so I tried to find out why an email didn’t get sent out.” Worldwide, there has been a lot of criticism from singers about the way they’ve discovered cancelled contracts. “Even though a mass email feels impersonal, it is nicer to tell your artists and employees ahead of it being announced on social media. I guess a lot of companies were flying by the seat of their pants. I then had a call to tell me the run of Traviata was finished, so I could go home. My Airbnb apartment was rented for another two weeks – and Manhattan is not a cheap city – so I had to absorb that cost completely.” And no show means no payment. “With force majeure, we didn’t even get the whiff of a dollar!’

With her scheduled Lucia di Lammermoor also cancelled at Bayerisches Staatsoper, Oropesa headed home to Baton Rouge in Louisiana, where she immediately got in touch with the union AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists), which has a relief fund for artists, to ask them to raise the $1000 cap. “A lot of people didn’t know it even existed. We got the cap temporarily raised to $2000.” Oropesa then got involved with other singers in trying to improve the situation for soloists. “AGMA represents the soloists, the chorus and stage directors, but what we as soloists get out of AGMA for what we put in is not the same as what choristers get. After weeks of Zoom meetings, it started to get very ugly, so I felt I had to find other ways to be useful during this time. I was spending a lot of time fighting and feeling very angry and very defeated. Emotions were running very high, so I left the soloists coalition, escaped to Santa Fe for a few months and focused my efforts elsewhere.” 

Lisette Oropesa © Steven Harris
Lisette Oropesa
© Steven Harris

Those efforts were directed towards masterclasses conducted via Zoom… not just one or two, but an incredible 58 by mid-August. It’s a highly organised operation involving sign-ups, mailing systems, lesson plans and guest teachers. “Teaching is exhausting!” she exclaims, but is clearly enthused by it. 

Next came the call from Teatro Real. Well, two calls. The first was to cancel their Traviata production scheduled for May, but they were optimistic it could go ahead in July, so Oropesa was told to “hang tight”. In June, the call came to fly to Madrid, quarantine for 14 days and start rehearsals. Oropesa was hesitant. 

“I didn’t feel comfortable flying at the point. I’d have had to go home and fly from Louisiana, but there were no direct flights. The whole thought of it was like a black cloud. I feared that they’d have to cancel it anyway and I’d be stuck there. I was ready to just write off the summer. 

“Well, they came back a couple of days later and said ‘We really want to have you. What if you come at the end of July?’ So I said okay, do your rehearsals, open in July and see if you have to cancel or not. What can I say, I’m a pessimistic person! I encourage others to be positive but in my heart I always fear the worst. 

Lisette Oropesa (Violetta) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Lisette Oropesa (Violetta)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

“They said they were going to do this socially-distanced production, nobody’s going to be touching, everyone’s going to be wearing masks, there’s going to be this whole concept. But everything I was reading in the media was that everything was going to be shut down for a year. Maybe two. ‘Choruses can’t be near each other! Human beings cannot sing in the midst of other human beings! Spit travels further than six feet!’ Everything I was reading was about how much of a disaster the music industry was becoming. How in hell was Teatro Real supposed to convince me that in Madrid it was all fine?!” 

But in mid-July, Oropesa took a direct flight from Dallas to Madrid and, because she has a Spanish passport, was able to fly straight in. The protocols were strict. “When I got to Madrid, you had to take a Covid test and then every day before entering the theatre you sanitise your hands, they take your temperature and they switch out your mask. A lot of precautions, but they managed the entire thing without a single soul getting sick.” Teatro Real certainly staged an incredible operation, with 27 performances involving four casts and an incredible 22,000 spectators attended during the run (50% capacity audiences). Oropesa herself received great reviews and even gave an encore of “Addio del passato”, the first time a soprano has given a solo encore at the theatre. 

What was it like, performing a socially-distanced Traviata where Violetta is unable to make physical contact with her Alfredo? Did it feel abnormal to be kept inside a taped box on the stage? “You get a zone which you’re supposed to stay in,” Oropesa explains, “but within that zone, you could do what you wanted. The whole stage was chequered, like a chessboard. I watched the production twice. I watched the stream with Marina Rebeka, then I saw Ruth Iniesta in the theatre. I wanted to see what it was like from an audience perspective. You're watching something of a tennis match, it’s hard to connect who’s speaking to whom. At first glance, it looks like a concert performance – everyone’s in a tuxedo or a gown – but then, as the evening progresses, you see more of a staging, more drama once you’re out of the party scenes. I saw there was more freedom than I’d thought. 

Lisette Oropesa (Violetta) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Lisette Oropesa (Violetta)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

“But not hugging Alfredo? The whole concept in the conductor’s mind was to take the idea that Violetta’s contagious and make that the central theme of why the hell everyone stays away from her! Which is true! The fact that Alfredo was interested in being with a woman who had tuberculosis – and everyone knew she had it at the time – is pretty ballsy. He easily could have contracted it. So we were playing with the idea not of using Covid but using what we’ve learned about Covid, so that he always stayed away from her. ‘Amami Alfredo’ in Act 2 does sort of work because she is trying to get away from him. ‘Just love me and know that I love you very much,’ she sings, so that kind of makes sense.”

Is this the ‘new normal’? Are we going to have to get used to socially-distanced productions? “I do think this will become the ‘new normal’ for a short while. It won’t be the ‘new normal’ forever, I hope. God, I don’t want this to become the ‘new normal’. I don’t want people to get used to how easy it is to watch things on the internet and think that this is the same experience as you see and hear in the theatre.” 

Lisette Oropesa © Steven Harris
Lisette Oropesa
© Steven Harris

Oropesa is now in Europe until December. Following a Rossini gala at the Arena di Verona, she enjoyed “cool breezes and mountains” in Italy and Switzerland before heading to London for a Royal Opera fundraiser, a Wexford recital and on to Vienna to make her Staatsoper debut in October (Konstanze in a new production of Entführung). At this time of great uncertainty, as opera is taking its first tentative steps back onto the stage, what are her hopes and fears for the art form?

“I hope it means people won’t take things for granted any more. Getting to experience performances every night on the internet is great, but it will also make you appreciate the real experience even more than before. I never appreciated just how easy it was to travel somewhere and not have to think about restrictions. Restrictions create appreciation. Restrictions help foster creativity. If someone just gives you a blank piece of paper and you have to draw something, it’s hard to be creative. But if they give you a blank piece of paper with a black square already on it, then your restriction can give you inspiration.”