Summer is over, the Proms flags and bunting are back in storage. After the long Covid hiatus, which included brave attempts to salvage something from the wreckage of their 2020-21 programming, concert halls and opera houses have reopened their doors, hopefully for an uninterrupted new season. After 18 months of getting my cultural fix via video streams or attending a handful of socially distanced concerts where you file in and file out along carefully patrolled routes, what would it be like returning to familiar haunts under normal conditions? In short, it’s been unnerving.

Giuseppe Verdi wears his face mask
© With thanks to Laura Volpi

I was at the opening night of the Royal Opera House’s season. While staff were masked or behind protective screens at the box office or bars, a lot of the audience were not. The evening before, I was at Wigmore Hall – an absolute model for safety protocols between lockdowns, with temperature checks and staggered entry times – and a number of audience members around me were unmasked. At the Barbican on Sunday, mask-wearing was well under 50%. I didn’t venture further afield than the Northern Line last week, so this piece only refers to personal experiences of concert-going in the capital.

Am I missing something? Covid hasn’t suddenly gone away. London’s vaccination rates are the lowest in the country and incidence rates in the UK are still high (average 33,000 new cases per day) and will surely rise as we head into winter. I agree that it’s time to try and get the arts back on track, but that doesn’t mean we have to abandon all sensible measures that were put in place to maximise our safety. Socially-distanced seating damages box office takings – although Wigmore Hall admirably continues to do so – but mask-wearing for the duration of a performance is a small, admittedly inconvenient, sometimes misty (for glasses wearers) price to pay to ensure the recovery is not derailed before it even gets going. It wasn’t without irony that I noted that, despite having rigorous testing routines, all the London Symphony Orchestra string players were masked while the majority of the audience watched them cheek by (unmasked) jowl. At Wigmore Hall, the only coughs between songs came from unmasked mouths. 

Although all venues encourage mask-wearing, I saw zero attempt at encouraging compliance. This is undoubtedly due to the government’s woolly advice which throws the decision back onto punters to take “sensible” precautions. How long before our concert halls and opera houses have to close their doors again?

The masked Salzburg Festival audience greet Evgeny Kissin
© Salzburg Festival | Marco Borelli

What’s happening abroad? Bachtrack reviews internationally and dealing with hundreds of press requests across the world gives us a global insight into conditions of entry for many concert halls and opera houses. Across the rest of Europe, for example, you are required, as an audience member, to provide one of three proofs that you are Covid-safe: either that you are double-vaccinated, or that you have natural immunity due to recent infection, or that you have taken a negative lateral flow test within a certain number of hours prior to the performance. If you can’t provide this, you don’t get in, simple as that. In New York, venues are demanding proof of double-vaccination. On top of that, most venues make mask-wearing mandatory, even specifying the type of mask to be worn. The Wiener Staatsoper stipulates FFP2 masks must be worn by all visitors over the age of 14. Anyone not able to wear one must present a medical certificate. 

So why won’t our venues implement more stringent entry rules? Unwilling to go out on a limb? The BBC did just that at this year’s Proms concerts, requiring audience members to prove either their vaccination status or a negative test result.

The Royal Albert Hall, home of the BBC Proms
© Mark Pullinger

“The connection between performers and audiences is a vital ingredient of live performance and there is a joy in the communion of music making – as a listener or a musician,” said Alan Davey, Controller of BBC Radio 3. “We must do what we can to ensure concerts continue with that crucial participation of live audiences. It matters for the music making itself and for the future of the sector. We were delighted to stage six weeks of Proms concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and are looking forward to working with venues across the UK to ensure the BBC Orchestras & Choirs continue to stage concerts all over the UK whilst keeping audiences – and performers – safe. We understand that there are still many people who feel uncomfortable about any sort of gatherings, but we will do what we can to ensure that individuals at least have the choice to attend.”

But venues are reluctant to go it alone. John Gilhooly, Executive and Artistic Director of Wigmore Hall, stated “We will enforce anything recommended by government, but it has to be the same instruction from all venues. So until such an announcement happens we will just operate within the guidelines, whilst strongly encouraging face coverings.” 

Alex Beard, CEO of the Royal Opera House, plays a similarly safe “prevailing government guidance” bat. In a statement to Bachtrack, Beard said, “The auditorium and all parts of the building are subject to enhanced cleaning and ventilation, regular anti-viral fogging, as well as strict protocols that staff are following, with mask-wearing strongly encouraged both front and back of house as well as a testing regime and survey on vaccination status. We have not made mask-wearing mandatory, but this policy remains under constant review as we continually assess the risks posed by infection and transmission rates in London and around the UK.”

The Royal Opera House
© Mark Pullinger

Will Gompertz, Artistic and Joint Interim Managing Director of the Barbican, is equally non-commital. “We want everyone to feel safe when they visit the Barbican and we appreciate that we are all feeling different degrees of comfort as we learn to navigate this new reality as best we can,” he said in a statement released by the Barbican. “The health of our visitors and staff remains our top priority. Even though the government restrictions were lifted on 19th July 2021, we continue to ask all our visitors and staff to wear face coverings while in the Centre, as well as having additional safety measures in place. These include hand sanitiser stations at all entrances, along with air handling units in our venues which extract air directly out of the building and resupply with 100% fresh air. 

“We are encouraging all our audiences to follow our Covid-19 recommendations which are on our website and are also sent to all ticket bookers in advance. We also have signage throughout the Centre. All of our events are organised and run according to the latest government Covid-19 guidance which is in line with how we’ve been responding to the Covid-19 pandemic since March 2020. We’ll continue to review these measures and respond to any changes in government guidance.” 

But there’s a world of difference between “encouraging” face coverings and making them mandatory, which venues are absolutely at liberty to do. Although it’s great that staff are seen taking all the right precautions, the public should be told they cannot enter unless similarly masked.

Inside Wigmore Hall
© Mark Pullinger

It’s clear that audiences are being cautious about returning to concert halls and theatres. Just look at the websites. A fortnight after public booking opened, you could pick up tickets for any performance of The Royal Opera’s new productions of Rigoletto and Jenůfa. Only two upcoming (socially-distanced) events at Wigmore Hall are sold out at the time of writing. 

There are any number of reasons for this. People are doubtless still reluctant to travel into central London, particularly on public transport. Many are still working from home and are less likely, perhaps, to want to schlep out in the evening. But hesitancy about safety protocols must be a factor. Yes, the government could – should – decree that audiences have to remain masked or, even better, that they have to prove vaccination status/ immunity/ negative test. But they won’t. They’re afraid of being seen as the “nanny state” and would prefer to devolve difficult decisions. 

Will venues take the bold step to increase safety protocols? From their statements above, clearly not, especially if they think going it alone will damage their box office takings. So it’s down to us, the public. If you value the arts, then yes, buy tickets, go along and support them… but don’t jeopardise the recovery through your own selfish behaviour. Test yourself on the day of a performance and… mask up!