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When the show must go on, even amid a coronavirus outbreak

CultureWhen the show must go on, even amid a coronavirus outbreak

While the outbreak has taken a big toll on the arts world in terms of closed venues and cancelled events, it has also spurred plenty of show-must-go-on creativity in some of the hardest-hit areas, with artists adapting to trying circumstances.


Venice’s ornate opera house, La Fenice, has survived floods and been rebuilt after devastating fires. So it was determined to keep going after the coronavirus forced it to cancel its performances: This week a string quartet gathered in the empty, eerily silent theater and played Beethoven, streaming the concert online and winning an ovation of handclap emojis.

The company’s general manager, Fortunato Ortombina, said that the virtual concert had been intended to send a message: “We still play in this place.”

While the coronavirus has taken a big toll on the arts world in terms of closed venues and cancelled events, it has also spurred plenty of show-must-go-on creativity in some of the hardest-hit areas, as performers and organisations have tried to adapt to trying circumstances.

The outbreak forced the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra to cancel all of its concerts in February and March and left its musicians working from home, so they began posting master classes on their WeChat page, along with informal videos showing the players practicing at home and playlists designed to help people under quarantine “fight boredom at home.”

“All the doctors and nurses were working so hard to help people, so we thought: what can we do as musicians?” Hao Jie, the orchestra’s principal trombonist, said in a telephone interview. “With everyone staying home for so long, we thought of doing something for young people, for students interested in learning how to play musical instruments.”

The videos have proved popular, with hundreds of thousands of views. “People love it,” he said.

The pop world is reeling, too. When K-pop superstars BTS released their latest album last month, coronavirus fears and restrictions on big events forced them to rethink the elaborate news conference they were planning. “We have decided to carry out the press conference without any members of the press,” they announced before streaming it live online.

Hundreds of thousands of fans tuned in and watched.

In Switzerland, a performance of Strauss’ opera “Salome” at the Lucerne Theater was nearly canceled after the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra was ordered to remain quarantined because it had performed in northern Italy less than two weeks earlier.

The theater started looking for a solo pianist to play a piano reduction of the complex score, which was written for one of the largest ensembles in opera and is often performed by more than 100 players. “We had a sold-out house, so the intendant of the theater called me that morning at 9 a.m. to ask me to play,” recalled the head of the theater’s music staff, Valeria Polunina.

Polunina knew the piano score well but feared she could not do it justice by that evening. But she began working on it, and grew more comfortable, so when she got another call that afternoon saying that the show could not go on without her, she agreed to play.

“It was an adventure,” she said, estimating that she played the piano more than 10 hours straight that day between her all-day practicing and the performance that evening. “There was a full house, and they were so appreciative, with everything canceled.”

Many events in Switzerland were canceled after the government banned performances before more than 1,000 people. The Zurich Opera House, which holds more than 1,100 people, found a novel solution to allow it to perform: It limited audiences to 900 people, buying back tickets when necessary, as it had to this week with some performances of Puccini’s “La Bohème.”

But the company did have to cancel one of its biggest fundraisers of the year, the Opera Ball, which had been expected to draw 1,600 people March 14. Bettina Auge, a spokeswoman for the company, said that while it was offering refunds, the opera hoped that patrons would waive the refund as a way to support its educational programs.

In countries hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak, performers have had to adapt. They are learning to perform without live audiences, or sometimes even theatres. Reuters

Even television, the ultimate home entertainment, is adjusting to the coronavirus, at least in China: On many shows, live audiences are out. A musical reality show called “Singer” that used to feature performers before a live audience and a panel of judges recently broadcast an episode in which the judges and other contestants called in from home, the BBC reported. And some talk shows are being streamed from home, almost like video conferences.

There is still a lot of uncertainty going forward.

BTS, the K-pop band, had a successful album rollout but was forced to cancel several major upcoming concerts in Korea because of the outbreak. The members of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra are symptom-free and at the end of their quarantine, and expect to be back playing “Salome” on Saturday, Numa Bischof Ullmann, the orchestra’s general director, said in an email. But the Swiss ban on large performances has already forced the orchestra to cancel two major concerts.

“The biggest question is: What if this continues like that?” he wrote.

And in Venice, Italy, where the Quartetto Dafne, made up of members of the opera orchestra, played Beethoven and Borodin to rows of empty seats in the rococo auditorium of La Fenice to stream online, it was unsettling to watch the players enter in silence and bow in silence. (One online audience member held firm to classical music etiquette during the performance, repeatedly writing “Shhhhh” as other viewers posted comments.)

Ortombina, the company’s general manager, said that two weeks of canceled performance had cost 600,000 euros, or around $669,000. But his biggest fear, he said, was losing the theater’s relationship with its audience.

“When you close an evening, when it sold out, it is a disaster,” he said. “Musically, economically and humanely.”

© 2020 The New York Times


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