Over the summer, while all the country opera festivals were busily performing outdoors or creating innovative digital projects, the Royal Opera House seemed to be dragging its heels and playing it safe, with activities consisting only of the streaming of four rather downbeat live concerts and broadcasts of recorded shows that most fans already possessed in DVD format.
But just before anyone got openly impatient – what was that annual £25 million of Arts Council subsidy being spent on? – the management announced an ambitious and inventive series of autumn events that will see the building partially reopening with singers, dancers and musicians performing on the main stage before socially distanced live audiences (as well as online viewers).
The programme kicked off splendidly last Friday with a varied menu from the Royal Ballet and will culminate at Christmas – the virus’s ravages permitting – with a run of the classic production of The Nutcracker.
And despite all the unresolved anxieties about singing transmitting infection, plenty of interesting opera is scheduled too. Next month, for instance, sees Verdi’s Falstaff with Bryn Terfel and Simon Keenlyside, while this Saturday offers 4/4, a quartet of contrasting short solo cantatas, newly staged and interpreted.
This is an operation that requires military levels of meticulous planning. Alex Beard, the Royal Opera House’s chief executive, insists that “we are doing whatever we can, as soon as we can”, but quite apart from all the erection of hand sanitisers and admonitory notices, the restrictions and regulations remain daunting. There has to be rigid division between front of house and backstage, between audience and performers; the air conditioning system has to be rigorously cleaned; performers singing or dancing in couples must be tested twice a week; staff have to be retrained – and so on.
All this involves extra expense at a time when the Royal Opera House’s earned income has been virtually nil for seven months. With the stalls removed to make room for the orchestra, the audience distanced across the auditorium can amount to only 350 – around 15 per cent of total capacity, in an organisation that requires 95 per cent of capacity to break even.
So these performances will cost a lot more than they yield – “financially speaking, very fractionally better than doing nothing” is how Beard puts it. Ticket prices have been substantially reduced, and there can be no catering or sales of paper programmes.
To put it bluntly, the viability of the Royal Opera House now depends on charitable donations – and the controversial auction at Christie’s later this month of a painting by David Hockney of one of Beard’s predecessors, Sir David Webster. Although this is expected to raise more than £15 million, even that sum will not be enough to secure the organisation’s future through 2021.
But despondency is not in the nature of the arts sector, and there’s great excitement about Saturday’s concert, featuring a marvellous range of British operatic talent, including Christine Rice in Britten’s Phaedra, directed by Deborah Warner, and Allan Clayton in H K Gruber’s absurdist Frankenstein!, directed by Richard Jones.
The event will also showcase two members of the Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artists, a two-year apprenticeship scheme that draws globally on the cream of singers, conductors, pianists and directors just entering the profession and provides them with a wealth of opportunities across the organisation.
On Saturday, 26-year-old Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha will be singing Samuel Barber’s lyrically meditative Knoxville: Summer of 1915. A black South African soprano born in Johannesburg, she came to London in 2019 and is now in her second year as a JPYA and had made her mark at Covent Garden before lockdown in the title role of a small-scale production of Handel’s Susanna. Assuming that the lockdown would be short-lived, she managed to return to South Africa to visit her family, but was able to continue vocal lessons via Zoom.