The Met Opera Races to Reopen After Months of Pandemic Silence

Tera Willis was backstage on the Metropolitan Opera, painstakingly including strand after strand of salt-and-pepper hair to a half-finished wig — one of dozens she and her group have been racing to end in time for opening night time later this month after the pandemic had saved performers from getting measured till mid-August.

“I would love about six months,” Ms. Willis, the pinnacle of the corporate’s wig and make-up division, mentioned. “We have six weeks.”

The refrain was again at work, singing by means of masks.Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York TimesA performer warmed up at a rehearsal for Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which can open the season.Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

In the Met’s underground rehearsal rooms, refrain members have been straining to challenge by means of the masks they need to rehearse in, a number of pulling the material a pair of inches from their face for a second or two. Just exterior its gilded auditorium, which has been empty for the reason that pandemic pressured the opera home to shut a 12 months and half in the past, stagehands have been reupholstering some worn pink velvet seats. Beneath the arched entry to the opera home, an electrician was putting in wiring to make some of the heavy entrance doorways touchless.

Reopening after the lengthy shutdown was by no means going to be simple for the Metropolitan Opera, the biggest performing arts firm within the nation. Unlike a Broadway theater, which should safely deliver again one present, the Met, a $300-million-a-year operation, is planning to mount 196 performances of 22 completely different operas this season, sometimes altering what’s on its mammoth stage every night time.

The monetary stakes are excessive: The Met, which misplaced $150 million in earned revenues through the pandemic, should now draw audiences again to its three,800-seat opera home amid renewed considerations in regards to the unfold of the Delta variant. Will individuals return in drive, after getting out of the behavior of spending nights on the opera? Will the Met’s strict vaccine mandate — it’s going to ban viewers members underneath 12, who can not but be vaccinated — reassure operagoers, particularly older ones? How a lot will journey bans damage the field workplace, the place worldwide guests made up as a lot as 20 % of ticket patrons?

The Met is warily watching gross sales. It has offered about $20 million value of tickets for the season to this point, the corporate mentioned, down from $27 million on the similar level within the season earlier than the pandemic. Subscriptions, which have been steadily eroding at American symphony orchestras and opera firms in recent times, are down by a couple of quarter from earlier than the pandemic, however officers count on extra subscribers to renew after they really feel secure about attending. Strong latest gross sales, and the pace with which the Met offered out an affordably priced efficiency of Verdi’s Requiem on Saturday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 assaults, provided hope that audiences will come again.

The monetary uncertainty led the Met to search concessions from its unions, some of which will probably be restored if and when the field workplace approaches prepandemic ranges. The ensuing labor disputes additional sophisticated the reopening: The firm didn’t attain a cope with its stagehands till July, delaying summer season technical rehearsals, and solely settled one other, with its orchestra, late final month, eradicating the final main barrier to reopening.

Riyo Mitsui, one of the Met’s wigmakers, at work.Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

So now the corporate is gearing up shortly, getting ready to marshal the forces of roughly 1,000 singers, orchestra gamers, conductors, dancers and actors scheduled to carry out this season. It began with two free performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” outdoor at Lincoln Center final weekend; will carry out Verdi’s Requiem on Saturday, its first efficiency again contained in the opera home, a live performance that will probably be broadcast on PBS; and it’ll lastly open the opera season on Sept. 27 with Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” its first opera by a Black composer. The firm is hoping that “Fire” and one other modern opera — “Eurydice,” by Matthew Aucoin — will draw new audiences.

The entire group is preparing to reopen. Keith Narkon, a ticket vendor, was together with his colleagues behind the Met’s box-office home windows, stuffing tickets into envelopes — and completely satisfied to be again after the virus had taken away their jobs for greater than a 12 months.

In the field workplace, workers are getting the tickets prepared for opening night time.Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

“It was just this numbness,” Mr. Narkon, a self-described opera fanatic, mentioned of the lengthy shutdown.

As the opera home buzzes with preseason anticipation, there are nonetheless bruised emotions from the labor battles, however there’s additionally a palpable sense of aid to lastly be again within the constructing collectively and dealing once more after so many months of unemployment checks and uncertainty.

“You don’t realize how much you respect the job until you don’t have it,” mentioned Phillip D. Smith, a stagehand who has labored on the Met for over 20 years, as he ripped the worn velvet off a seat cushion.

“You don’t realize how much you respect the job until you don’t have it,” Phillip D. Smith, a stagehand who has labored on the Met for over 20 years, mentioned as he reupholstered a chair.Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York TimesThe doorways to the auditorium obtained a contemporary coat of paint.Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

But life backstage remains to be removed from regular, as firm officers preserve a detailed eye on the Delta variant, and the steps they need to take to preserve the corporate and the viewers secure.

A City Stirs

As New York begins its post-pandemic life, we discover Covid’s lasting affect on town.

The Workers: We photographed greater than 100 individuals who work within the service economic system — cleaners, cooks, retailer clerks, health trainers — who have been half of the toughest hit industries within the metropolis.The Economy: New York’s prosperity is closely depending on patterns of work and journey that will have been irreversibly altered.The Epicenter: The neighborhoods in Queens the place Covid hit the toughest are buzzing once more with exercise. But restoration feels far-off.Dive Deeper: See all our tales in regards to the reopening of N.Y.C.

The firm’s vaccination mandate is so strict that an unvaccinated telecom employee who arrived for a job was turned away. A particular patron’s entrance space has been changed into a testing middle the place individuals in rehearsals should get nasal-swab assessments twice per week. And to preserve viewers members other than the performers, the primary two rows of seats within the auditorium will probably be blocked off by means of the top of the 12 months.

“On one hand, it’s frightening and frustrating to see the rate of infection,” mentioned Peter Gelb, the overall supervisor of the Met. “But it’s so thrilling to see the possibility within grasp of actually opening performances.”

Workers cleaned one of the stairways on the opera home.Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

Some bitterness lingers over the labor disputes, which have been resolved when the corporate’s three greatest unions agreed to new contracts that lower their pay modestly, saving the corporate cash by shifting some staff to a distinct well being care plan and lowering the quantity of assured full-time members of the orchestra and refrain.

In the props division, the place scenic artists have been working to create corn on the cob and a pat of butter for a Thanksgiving dinner within the upcoming manufacturing of “Fire,” Ryan Hixenbaugh, an artist, lamented that some of the work had been completed in California, the place Met administration outsourced work after locking out its stagehands in December within the struggle over pay cuts.

“We had the capability of making all the scenery for all of these operas here,” Mr. Hixenbaugh mentioned.

With the opera home empty for greater than a 12 months, there was sprucing up to do: Keishla Nieves cleaned a brass railing.Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York TimesWith no audiences and no crowds for a 12 months and a half, there was no want for stanchions to direct individuals to the Box Office. But they’ll quickly be put in service once more.Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

Some stagehands made ends meet through the shutdown, and the lockout, by constructing outside shelters for town’s new al fresco eating spots. Others obtained work in tv manufacturing, which rebounded earlier than reside efficiency.

When they returned to the Met in July, the stagehands discovered an infinite quantity of work. For greater than a 12 months, the opera home had sat nonetheless, as if frozen in time. The decades-old equipment that makes the Met’s stage run was not constructed for such dormancy.

Two scenic backdrops that had been hanging for months had fallen to the bottom earlier within the 12 months. The wheels on the Met’s wagon system — which is highly effective sufficient to shortly shuttle its mammoth units of Ancient Egypt, Imperial China or Fin-de-Siècle Paris on and offstage — have been flattened by the load of the units that had been left on high of them. And elements of the fly system, made up of wire rope strains and riggings, had rusted.

“To leave it sitting still for that length of time was terrifying,” mentioned David Feheley, the Met’s technical director. “So many of these systems have lasted as long as they have because of constant attention.”

Stagehands constructed units backstage. When they returned to the opera home, they discovered that the stage equipment wanted a terrific deal of upkeep work.Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

To accommodate all of the pressing upkeep work, the Met’s technical rehearsals have been pushed from the start of August to the top of the month. One opera, Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride,” was canceled.

The orchestra noticed 11 of its 96 common full-time members retire or go away their jobs through the pandemic, in accordance to the orchestra committee, which negotiates labor points on behalf of the musicians. A quantity of veteran stagehands retired too.

The firm hopes the thrill of working collectively once more will outweigh any residual resentment.

“The Met is maybe slightly fractured,” Mr. Gelb mentioned, “but it is a family.”

The Met is planning 196 performances of 22 completely different operas this season, which suggests lots of ironing.Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York TimesPaul Tazewell, the costume designer for “Fire,” mentioned that it was odd not to give you the option to see the faces of performers, who’ve been staying largely masked.Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

At this stage of the pandemic, it’s a household that may’t have any members underneath the age of 12, and never simply within the viewers. The Met’s performers can’t be younger, both. In “Boris Godunov,” which is scheduled to open on Sept. 28, a component that’s usually sung by a boy soprano will probably be given to an grownup mezzo-soprano. And in “Fire” — which is predicated on a memoir by Charles Blow, an Opinion columnist for The New York Times — a 13-year-old, Walter Russell III, will play the function of younger Charles, who is meant to be 7.

“I have been trying to get into the mind of a 7-year-old kid,” Mr. Russell mentioned.

In the props division, scenic artists ready a Thanksgiving dinner for the upcoming manufacturing of “Fire.”Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

To reopen easily, the Met’s employees members nonetheless have quite a few battles to wage.

Everything from materials for costumes to equipment for stage lights to fundamental supplies like plywood and metal are proving tough to receive as a result of of pandemic supply-chain issues. And reserving the worldwide performers opera depends on has develop into a large number of unpredictable pink tape, between visa troubles and virus-related journey restrictions.

One of the few instances performers can take their masks off lately is when they’re being fitted within the costume store, for pictures which can be taken to assist designers take within the impact of every costume.

“If there’s an unspoken feeling, normally I would be able to see that on a performer’s face, but I can’t access that,” mentioned Paul Tazewell, the Tony-winning costume designer for “Fire.”

A mannequin of the “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” set.Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

But, come Sept. 27 — if all goes as deliberate — the masks will come off, the Sputnik chandeliers will ascend, the curtain will go up and reside opera will probably be again onstage.

Zachary Woolfe contributed reporting.