In a backstage room at the Metropolitan Opera, Tera Willis was painstakingly attaching one strand after another of salt-and-pepper hair to an unfinished wig. It was one of dozens she and her team were racing against the clock to finish in time for opening night later this month, after the pandemic had prevented performers from getting measured until the middle of August.
Refrain members have been struggling to perform in the masks they are required to wear during rehearsals, with just a handful of them being able to lift the cloth a few inches off their faces for a split second or two at a time. Stagehands have begun reupholstering some old pink velvet seats just outside the opera house’s gilded auditorium, which has been vacant since a pandemic forced the opera house to close a year and a half ago and has been empty since. An electrician was working under the arched entryway to the opera house, installing wiring that would allow some of the massive entrance doors to be operated without the need of a handle.
Bringing the Metropolitan Opera, the nation’s largest performing arts organisation, back into operation after an extended closure was never going to be an easy task. For example, in contrast to a Broadway theatre, which is only required to safely bring back one show each season, the Metropolitan Opera (the Met), with a budget of $300 million per year, plans to stage 196 performances of twenty-two totally different operas this season, with the repertoire on its mammoth stage changing almost every night.
The stakes are very high in terms of money: With increased concerns about the spread of the Delta strain, the Metropolitan Opera, which suffered a $150 million loss in earned income during the epidemic, might be able to attract more crowds to its 3,800-seat opera house in the coming months. Will people regain control of their lives after they have broken their habit of spending their evenings at the opera? Are operagoers, especially those over the age of 50, likely to be reassured by the Metropolitan Opera’s stringent vaccination requirement, which should exclude audience members under the age of 12, who can’t help but be vaccinated? To what extent would travel restrictions have an effect on the box office, where international visitors accounted for as much as 20 percent of all ticket sales?
Because of the financial uncertainties, the Metropolitan Police Department sought concessions from its labour unions, some of which will be restored if and when the field office reaches pre-pandemic levels. In addition, the following labour conflicts make the reopening much more difficult: The company didn’t reach a settlement with its stagehands until July, postponing summer season technical rehearsals, and only reached a final agreement with its orchestra late last month, removing the last major roadblock to reopening.
Nonetheless, life backstage remains a world apart from the ordinary, as company officials keep a close watch on the Delta version and the measures they must take to keep the company and the spectators safe.