Audience Breaks Out of Schubert and Mahler Lockout

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WIESBADEN, Germany – Normally, when an artist looks beyond the stage lights in a dark theater and sees every fourth seat occupied, this is not a good sign.

“Is it because we are not good?” Günther Groissböck, an Austrian baritone, recalled thinking while walking in front of a sparse audience at the Hesse State Theater here on Monday evening. “Is it because we are unpopular?” “

At least three empty seats have separated each of the occupied seats in the neo-baroque auditorium, which normally has 1,000 but received fewer than 200 on Monday. This was by design, as part of a highly controversial and potentially risky attempt to revive live performance as the first wave of pandemic coronavirus reflux in Europe. The Wiesbaden concert could serve as a model for other theaters – or a warning, if someone who attended gets sick.

Although Mr. Groissböck understood the rationale for the social distancing of empty seats, it still seemed strange, he said in an interview following his performance of works by Schubert and Mahler.

“At first, it almost looked like an art installation, an experience,” he said. “But from song to song, it quickly became something very human. “

Spectators were required to wear face covers at the theater, but were allowed to remove them when seated. Tickets were delivered without a seat allocation and members of a household could sit together. The theater has recorded everyone’s name and address, so they can be contacted later in case someone turns out to be infected.

Laufenberg said in an interview that some theater workers had reservations about the opening so early. But Monday’s performance, the first in a series that continues daily during the first week of June, is part of a general return to normal in Germany, where the growth of new cases has fallen well below 1% .

Elsewhere in Europe, governments are also taking steps to bring music lovers back to concert halls. Austria announced last week that events of up to 100 people, with social distancing, could take place from May 29. In August, a new limit of 1,000 people was proposed, if event organizers submit a security plan for government approval – an evolution that led to the Salzburg Festival, one of the greatest summer traditions from Europe, to announce that he hopes to go ahead with representations, in one form or another.

Laufenberg said that to organize a concert while respecting health guidelines, you had to negotiate with officials and reprogram the theater ticketing software in less than three days. Barriers were erected to channel the audience into the theater without crowding. Signs have been installed to direct pedestrian traffic and explain anti-contagion measures. Hand sanitizers were placed in strategic locations.

“It’s easier to close a theater than to reopen one,” said Laufenberg.

During the intermission, wine, pretzels and other refreshments were served outside a food cart near the entrance to the colonnaded theater, rather than in a foyer, as usual. Fortunately, the weather on Monday was clear and warm.

“This is not the atmosphere we are used to,” said Wolfgang Allin, an Austrian architect who has a house in Wiesbaden, shortly after he and his wife, Angelika, took their seats on the balcony. “But you have to take it as it comes.” “

The idea for Monday’s performance was born from discussions between Mr. Laufenberg and Mr. Groissböck, who worked together last year on a staging of Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal” at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany (which canceled this year’s productions).

Mr. Groissböck was at home in Switzerland, he said, trying to ward off depression. “We get along well,” he said of Laufenberg, “and we share the same rebellious attitude” about the restrictions.

The baritone chose the title of the concert, “My mind is thirsty for action, My lungs for freedom,” a line by Schiller. He said he expressed frustration with the lock.

Mr. Groissböck and Alexandra Goloubitskaia, the pianist who accompanied him, accepted far lower prices than usual. “Money is the last priority for now,” he said, adding, “I am delighted that this is happening. “

As a reminder, Mr. Groissböck sang an excerpt from a role he was to play in Bayreuth if the pandemic had not interfered: Wotan’s farewell at the end of Wagner’s “Die Walküre”. The public was delighted, catching up in volume what they lacked in number.

But Laufenberg said that such performances were not a permanent solution, either financially or artistically. “If you want to tell the story of Romeo and Juliet, they will not be able to follow the rules of social distancing,” he said. “I can’t imagine that. I don’t want to imagine. ”

Alex Marshall contributed to the London report.

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