A makeup artist disinfects a chair used by a cast member before a performance of "Rusalka" at the Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain, on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. The theater is one of the few major opera houses that have reopened during the coronavirus pandemic, although to smaller audiences. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

The show goes on at Madrid’s opera house despite pandemic

MADRID — No one performing onstage in Spain’s Teatro Real opera house is masked, and that alone looks odd these days amid a pandemic.

And that’s even before the second act scene in Antonín Dvorák’s “Rusalka” — about a water nymph who falls in love with a mortal — in which cast members kiss and grope in a feigned, non-socially distanced orgy.

While many of the world’s major venues are shut down, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Covent Garden in London and La Scala in Milan, watching a performance at the Teatro Real in Madrid can almost make you forget about the coronavirus.

Located in one of the cities hit hardest by the virus, the Teatro Real is making a herculean effort for the show to go on, investing in safety measures that have allowed it to stage performances — albeit with smaller audiences — since July.

In March and April, soaring infections had Madrid’s hospitals filled with COVID-19 patients. That eased in the summer, but another wave saw cases surge in the city and surrounding region. Authorities now seem to have gained the upper hand, with hospital occupancy rates falling steadily. Overall, Spain’s Health Ministry has recorded more than 1.54 million cases and has attributed almost 42,300 deaths to the virus.

“The theatre and culture must bet on staying open at all times,” Teatro Real managing director Ignacio García-Belenguer told The Associated Press. “It’s not about going against the flow or trying to be exceptional. … It’s what we believe we have to do.”

With a yearly budget of 60 million euros ($71 million), Spain’s prime cultural centre acknowledges it has the capacity and ability to carry on.

García-Belenguer says its financing from public subsidies, sponsors and ticketing puts Teatro Real in a unique spot to break even, unlike other opera houses that are normally mostly public or private. Extra state funding because of the pandemic will help too, he adds.

But it also has the good fortune of being in a region that has decided to take a different tack with the virus and apply fewer and more-localized restrictions, allowing bars, restaurants and cultural venues to stay open with reduced attendance.

It was closed during Spain’s three months of national confinement between March and May, but preparations for reopening went on. It rolled out an array of measures that allowed it to stage a work with an audience, Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata,” in July. Since then, it has put on two other operas, ballets and flamenco shows, and plans a full season for 2021.

Everyone entering the theatre has their temperature taken automatically by machines. Hand sanitizers abound and surgical masks are supplied to all. There are ultra-violet lamps to disinfect the main theatre, dressing rooms and clothing, and the air conditioning has been adapted to ensure a healthier air flow and temperature.

García-Belenguer says they will spend 1 million euros ($1.2 million) on safety measures by year’s end.

“I feel like I’m in a miracle, “says Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian, the star of “Rusalka,” which is a co-production with companies in Dresden, Bologna, Barcelona and Valencia. Those sites will not be able to stage the opera for some time.

“We are always tested, (and) with masks, it’s really strict in the theatre,” says Grigorian, who had her October 2021 debut in the Met cancelled while shows in Berlin and elsewhere are uncertain.

“I have no idea where I am going after Madrid,” she says. “If everything will be locked down then I’ll stay in Madrid.”

She and “Rusalka” director Christof Loy believe Madrid is leading the way.

“I think the governments are wrong in closing theatres,” Loy said. “People need music, they need arts.”

García-Belenguer compares the situation to now universally accepted security measures adopted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The “new normality,’’ he says, demands “a deployment to minimize the health risk when someone comes to the theatre, or boards a plane.”

Key to staying open during the pandemic was Teatro Real’s decision to set up a medical committee with specialists from five Madrid hospitals giving advice, he said.

Offstage, masks are compulsory for all. The cast, chorus and orchestra are tested every three days, with others monitored regularly. Stagehands and other workers must fill out health questionnaires every day.

There have been isolated positive tests, but in each one, the theatre says it reacted promptly and often tested up to 50 people who came in contact with the infected person.

The average of 1,000-plus audience members — about 65% of normal capacity — are divided into 19 sectors with separate refreshment areas and toilets and a small army of ushers ensuring there is no roaming about.

“It is a complex system to try to reduce to the maximum the impact,” García-Belenguer said.

He knows any outbreak could prove embarrassing. Memories are still fresh of the furor at a performance of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” in September, when a show was interrupted and eventually cancelled after spectators in cheaper seats protested loudly that they were crammed together, while those in expensive ones appeared to have plenty of space.

The opera house was in full compliance with regulations at the time, but since then, a one-seat separation between every two is the norm.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said growing COVID-19 case numbers continue to be a concern in the province. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta announces 1,077 new COVID-19 cases Thursday

There are currently 14,052 active cases in the province

Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta’s chief medical health officer publicly criticizes staffer who leaked info

EDMONTON — Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, dealing with rocketing COVID-19… Continue reading

The RCMP major crimes unit is investigating after a person was found dead at a residence on Stewart Street in Red Deer’s Sunnybrook neighbourhood Wednesday afternoon. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
Red Deer RCMP investigating suspicious death in Sunnybrook

A ‘deceased adult’ was found by officers

A detail from Canyon Light, an oil painting by Joan Clement, in the Scale exhibit by members of the Red Deer Art Club. It’s showing at the Viewpoint Gallery in the city’s Culture Services Centre. (Contributed image).
Outdoor art gallery and scavenger hunt is on in Red Deer next month

But First Friday receptions and patio concerts are postponed

All Red Deer students from Grade 7 to 12 will be learning remotely as of next week, and are not expected to return to in-person classes until Jan. 11. (Contributed photo).
Red Deer schools prepare for temporary remote learning, starting next week

Middle- and high-school students start learning remotely on Monday

This image released by ABC shows Ryan Phillippe in a scene from "Big Sky." premiering on Tuesday. Several Indigenous groups are lambasting ABC's "Big Sky" for a storyline about murdered women in Montana that fails to mention the crisis disproportionately involves Indigenous victims. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-HO, ABC-Sergei Bachlakov, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Indigenous groups criticize ABC series ‘Big Sky’ for insensitivity to MMIWG

Indigenous groups criticize ABC series ‘Big Sky’ for insensitivity to MMIWG

People wear face masks as they pose next to a Christmas display in Montreal, Sunday, November 22, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
How to tell family their Christmas gathering is too risky and you’re not going

How to tell family their Christmas gathering is too risky and you’re not going

Kara McKlemurry poses for a photo while writing Thanksgiving notes to family and friends at her home Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, in Clearwater, Fla. On any normal Thanksgiving Day, McKlemurry and her husband would drive from their home to one of two places: his family's home in another part of Florida or her family's house in Alabama. This year, McKlemurry informed her family there would be no visits because of the pandemic. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Empty seats, delivered feasts as virus changes Thanksgiving

Empty seats, delivered feasts as virus changes Thanksgiving

A KidiZoom Creator Cam by VTech is displayed at the Toy Fair, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in New York. The digital camera comes with a green screen and animated backgrounds allowing kids to go to outer space, get chased by T-Rex, or make things disappear. The camera comes with a tabletop tripod, which can also be used as a selfie stick. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Holiday trends to watch: Adult Play-Doh; stores that ship

Holiday trends to watch: Adult Play-Doh; stores that ship

Deepa Mehta on why more Tamil actors weren’t in lead roles in new film ‘Funny Boy’

Deepa Mehta on why more Tamil actors weren’t in lead roles in new film ‘Funny Boy’

Head Coach Jason Chatwood (left) sports one of the Sylvan Lake Gulls’ first on-field hats next to Aqil Samuel, general manager and president of baseball operations, at Hockey Central on July 26. (Photo by Sylvan Lake News)
Sylvan Lake Gulls ticket sales off to flying start

With the inaugural season quickly closing in, the Sylvan Lake Gulls hit… Continue reading

Players at Canada’s World Junior selection camp in Red Deer last hit the ice Sunday in an intrasquad game. On Tuesday, it was announced that two players had tested positive for COVID-19 and the entire camp has since gone into isolation. (Photo by ROB WALLATOR/Hockey Canada Images)
Canada’s world junior camp to remain on pause for 14 days

Camp halted after two players contracted COVID-19

File Photo
Sylvan Lake Town Council asks for a mask bylaw to be brought forward for consideration

The bylaw would require face coverings in all indoor Town-owned and operated facilities

Most Read