On the 12th March all theatres in the Netherlands went dark. Festivals, indoors and outdoors, were cancelled and the season came abruptly to an end. Dutch National Opera (DNO) had to scupper its annual Opera Forward Festival, which was about to be launched. Most of the Holland Festival was scrapped. The Mahler Festival at the Concertgebouw has been postponed to 2021. The Dutch government will roll out its third nation-wide corona aid package in October. Recognising that the cultural sector has been hit particularly hard, it has allocated an extra 782 million euros for cultural institutions and venues as well as the freelancers who make up 60% of the workforce in the arts. This emergency fund is meant to tide the sector over until the summer of 2021. With luck, it will last long enough to keep most companies afloat and to prevent most freelance performers, theatre technicians, costume designers etc. from abandoning their profession for good. Bad news is, however, inevitable. Last week impresario Marco Riaskoff announced that, after 33 years, the coronavirus had dealt the death blow to his highly successful Master Pianists series at the Concertgebouw. You need full houses to cover big star fees.

Concertgebouw, Amsterdam © Hans Roggen
Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
© Hans Roggen

On the 1st June, theatres were allowed to open but could not admit more than thirty people. People in the business reacted incredulously to this directive. “The only theatre that will open is the flea circus,” quipped theatre producer Ruud de Graaf. One month later, the maximum audience number was raised to a hundred. No enterprise, whether fully commercial or subsidised, can put on viable shows under these conditions. Yet, with typical Dutch pragmatism, several companies used this period to test out the logistics of socially distanced events, while keeping in touch with their audiences with a flurry of pre-recorded online content. They puzzled over seating plans and stage dimensions, figuring out how to apply the 1.5 metre social distancing rule (2 metres for wind instruments) that now regiments all facets of Dutch life. In June, DNO put on a series of vocal recitals by Dutch soloists and pianists. At the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, conductor Marc Albrecht gave a farewell concert after ten years at the helm of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra for a select audience, by invitation only. The originally planned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was replaced by an instrumental programme featuring Strauss, Mahler and Schumann. The Concertgebouw reopened for the general public on the 1st July when pianists Arthur and Lucas Jussen kicked off a modified summer concert series. At TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht, Karina Canellakis conducted a riveting Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle in concert, using a reduction of the score for a smaller orchestra.


The authorities soon realised that limiting audiences to one hundred souls at all venues, regardless of size, did not make much sense. Huge choral works and fully staged opera with a cast of hundreds remain out of reach, but by applying the 1.5 metre rule, a venue like the main hall at the Concertgebouw, which can seat almost two thousand at full capacity, is currently admitting up to 350 spectators. Programming has had to be trimmed and rethought, but corona-proof seasons are being launched up and down the country. At an increasing number of theatres and concert halls, hand sanitiser stations stand guard at entrances and exits, drinks can be taken into the hall to prevent clotting at crush bars and audience details are collected in case contact tracing becomes necessary. Masks are not required, but visitors must be symptomless and not have visited a foreign country coded “orange” in the previous ten days. Concerts are often shorter than usual, but are sometimes repeated twice in one day. While international quarantine rules prevent many artists from performing abroad, casting directors are turning to artists based in the Netherlands and emerging local talent. This year’s alternative Utrecht Festival of Early Music, for example, was locally cast. At the same time, by spreading out to ten other Dutch cities besides Utrecht and streaming concerts online, it probably has had the most geographically diverse audience to date. The Gaudeamus Muziekweek, a festival of contemporary music, is also going ahead. It closes on the 13th September with an improvised ‘walking concert’ through the Dutch countryside.

Dutch National Opera © Ronald Tilleman
Dutch National Opera
© Ronald Tilleman

In the meantime, the major companies have launched their seasons in revised versions, until at least January 2020. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra inaugurated its season on the 2nd September with Haydn and Schubert symphonies conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. Chief conductor Lahav Shani is set to open the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s season at De Doelen with Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony. On the 5th September, the NTR ZaterdagMatinee series opened its 60th season with a true rarity, Pietro Mascagni’s verismo rescue opera Il piccolo Marat. For this concert version the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic orchestra and the subtly amplified choir were slimmed down, but the originally listed international cast, featuring tenor Stefano la Colla, soprano Anita Hartig and bass John Relyea, remained unchanged. By extending the stage area, the musicians and singers were able to maintain a safe distance from each other. The dotted placing, together with the sparse audience, which lengthens the reverberation time, must have caused maestro Pietro Rizzo a headache or two. You can listen to the result here.

On the same day, also in Amsterdam, the Muziekgebouw presented a scaled down Symphony no. 4 by Mahler featuring soprano Barbara Hannigan, while DNO ushered in its season with Faust [working title]. This musical project entrusted to young artists explores the Faustian pact, the theme of the cancelled season opener, Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele. Kaija Saariaho’s Innocence, announced for October, has also been called off. Instead, young graduates of the DNO talent development programme will appear in Willem Jeths’ new opera, Ritratto, inspired by the life of aristocratic art patron and muse Luisa Casati. Ritratto was to have opened the Opera Forward Festival last March. Its dress rehearsal was streamed online, but now it will also get the live audiences it deserves. It is yet unclear whether Le nozze di Figaro and Aida can go ahead in November and December. Dutch National Ballet has cancelled a number of its large-scale productions, but opens its season with Dancing Apart Together, new creations in which safe physical distance is part of the choreography.

<i>Faust [working title]</i> © Michel Schnater | DNO Kopie
Faust [working title]
© Michel Schnater | DNO Kopie

Smaller companies are also gearing up. Holland Opera was the first in the land to present staged opera after the corona closures. Flying Dutchman, a treatment of the ancient legend by composer Niek Idelenburg, was positively received by the press. De Nederlandse Reisopera is presenting young artists in a production called Magelone & Peter and will soon announce its updated season. Theatres everywhere are putting on as many performances spanning as many artistic genres as possible. The problem for audiences is being able to snap up the limited number of tickets for popular events in time.

Cinemas are also open, but the Live in HD series from the Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Opera House Live shows are, of course, on hold, awaiting news from New York and London. It is still forbidden for church congregations to sing, but they are allowed to listen to the church choir. In fact, amateur singers and musicians can again practise and perform, as long as they observe safety measures. It’s up to each music society to decide whether it can hold socially distanced rehearsals. For many of them, putting on performances for reduced audiences will be financially challenging. Taking a cue from the professionals, some are considering shorter programmes repeated back to back. Space and funds may be limited right now, but the problem-solving creativity of the Dutch musical community is proving to be bountifully self-renewing.