Criticism on Fridays: Denying an Outbreak at Teatro Real

Should We Stir Up a Scandal About Postponing the Premiere of ‘Peter Grimes?’

By Polina Lyapustina
(Photo: Joel Filipe)

Every Friday, Polina Lyapustina delivers a short essay on some of the most essential topics in the industry with the intent of establishing a dialogue about the opera world and its future.

This week, the opera world discussed breaking news — a COVID-19 Outbreak during rehearsals for a “Peter Grimes” production at Teatro Real de Madrid has vaulted the opera company that recently served as a symbol of hope for live performances in the pandemic world to the center of a noisy trial.

It was recently reported that more than 20 members of the production team and cast caught the virus and that it might be the real reason for the delay of the opening of “Peter Grimes.” Original plans had it opening on April 9, but the production’s premiere has since moved to April 19 and there seems to be no way of stopping that. The official reason announced by the theatre was that there were delays in the artists’ arrival to the rehearsals caused by the restrictions in mobility and the bureaucratic obstacles of Brexit and readjustment of the rehearsal schedule for the large cast. 

After the news about COVID cases in the theatre, Spain’s immediately accused the theatre administration of lying, pointed to the virus outbreak as the main reason for the postponement. They also disputed the official response of the theatre, that denied an outbreak, allegedly citing Intermezzo, the company which represents the chorus. According to their data, four soloists, nine chorus members, and various orchestra musicians have been infected or tested positive. Later, Intermezzo told OperaWire via email that the information in the Beckmesser article was never confirmed or provided by them. 

What is clear and confirmed officially is that in March 2021, 24 people at the Teatro Real de Madrid tested positive at a different time. The Health Ministry confirmed the outbreak and there is an ongoing investigation. The theatre insisted that the cases were unrelated and denied an outbreak. Either way, all diagnosed people experienced mild symptoms and were isolated. In tests conducted on April 5-7, one person tested positive. For the production of “Peter Grimes” involving 250 people, tests are carried out several times a week. For soloists — daily. And the rehearsals will continue.

As I try to grasp this situation around the major European theatre that managed to stay open during almost the whole season, I find myself constantly asking — why? Why are we seeing all of these loud headlines, accusations, and unverified quotes? 

The situation cannot obviously be transparent and clear. Too many restrictions, laws, and bureaucracy are involved. We don’t even define “an outbreak” the same in different countries, and it seems that after this situation, not even in the same country. And surely, from the side, we cannot understand how it is to provide safety in such a massive production during the pandemic for both the team and audience. But we can certainly remember the failures and mistakes made by the theater at the beginning of the season. And somehow, it makes me think that the administration of Teatro Real might have learned from its mistakes. 

These days, whether you are sitting in the stalls or on the balcony, you have two empty seats on each side. Masks are mandatory all times. Spectators enter the hall in parts, according to the places. The intervals are reduced, and it’s possible to move inside restricted areas inside the theatre to reduce contact with others. The air in the hall renews every 15 min.

If we talk about singers, all the safety measures are provided too, but one even more important thing is provided for the artists at Teatro Real — the opportunity to work. To perform and to see the audience. In these difficult times, they prove every day that even if the pandemic lasts, live opera can adjust to this new reality. They provide an example and valuable data for other theatres to achieve their own reopenings for the new season. 

Finally, they are providing jobs. To the world superstars — you’ve probably seen all these posts by Michael Fabiano, Sondra Radvanovsky, or Jonas Kaufmann raving about performing in front of the audience at the Teatro Real. But more importantly, the theater is giving jobs to local artists. Most of the singers in Spain are freelancers. Working is the only way for them to sustain their livelihood. 

I don’t think that managers of Teatro Real are saints, but they could easily close the theatre, show their old filmed performances online, and wait. And yet, they have overcome numerous technical and bureaucratic obstacles to keep people working. They have dealt with the Health ministry, researching, building, and keeping connections, helping out performers stuck at the transfer airport because opera is not considered essential at the state level.

With all this in mind, I ask why is it so important to reveal the real reason for the delay of “Peter Grimes?” Making noise, accusing, distracting people from their work. Teatro Real grew up and certainly became safer in this challenging year. And today, they give jobs to 250 people, who will premiere the massive production in Madrid on April 19. They, these people too, still hope to open this production. Yes, the theatre had COVID cases in March, but they took action with clarity and confidence. The world now has 500,000 new cases every day and, sad to say, there is nothing new.

And we can only guess how many other barriers the Madrid theatre had to overcome to have this major premiere.  

And frankly, I wish the media would pay attention to the work done to bring this true miracle of the pandemic world to people, not to how the press office of Teatro Real explains the postponement of a single production in this challenging time.