The Bolshoi’s doors have stayed open even in times of revolution and war. So after coronavirus forced the longest hiatus in the Moscow theatre’s schedule for more than two centuries, it was eager to bounce back.
Plans were announced over summer for something approaching a full season of opera and ballet across its three stages, and on 6 September, the theatre started the season with an all-star cast performing Verdi’s Don Carlo, even as Moscow continued to record hundreds of new Covid cases every day.
But it did not take long for the realities of the pandemic to intervene: the third and final performance of Don Carlo had to be cancelled at the last minute after singer Ildar Abdrazakov tested positive for Covid. Later, the soprano Anna Netrebko posted on Instagram that she had also tested positive.
“We understand that coronavirus has not gone anywhere, the epidemic is continuing,” said the Bolshoi’s general director, Vladimir Urin. “Unfortunately, in the current situation, it can become part of our everyday lives that at short notice we can no longer put things on.” He said the theatre was working to ensure there were always understudies available to avoid cancellations happening too often.
Theatres around the globe are struggling to find a viable way to operate amid the ongoing pandemic. Opera houses are particularly vulnerable, with singers often booked years in advance and hugely expensive productions involving hundreds of singers and musicians that are a box-office nightmare to cancel at short notice.
Over the summer, a couple of opera festivals tested life in the new reality, and a number of houses across Europe have reopened amid stringent safety measures and extremely limited programmes.
The Bolshoi, as a repertory theatre with a huge roster of artists on staff, is better equipped than some others to function normally, though it has made changes too. The orchestra size has been reduced, and the theatre is drawing on in-house reserves rather than importing artists where possible, due to the difficulty of travel.
Russia is still closed to most international flights, and the theatre had to charter a plane to bring directors to Moscow for the premiere of four one-act ballets that opened its dance season in early September.
The Bolshoi is selling only 50% of the seats for all productions, and there are temperature checks on entry. Masks are meant to be mandatory, but at a performance of the ballet Romeo and Juliet last week, audio messages imploring people to wear masks were ignored by most in the audience. The bar during the intervals was packed with unmasked spectators enjoying champagne and cake.
“Unfortunately, despite the constant reminders that it is necessary to wear masks, people often don’t comply and that’s already their own responsibility I’m afraid. We can only ask people, we don’t have means to force them,” said Urin.
Russia has registered at least 4,500 new coronavirus cases daily since late April, with about 600 a day in Moscow. Life in the Russian capital, however, goes on with little concern for the virus after authorities began easing strict lockdown regulations in June. Restaurants, bars and metro cars are all packed, and while wearing gloves and a mask is meant to be mandatory, in reality only a minority bother.
For the Bolshoi, the closure due to the coronavirus is the longest period the theatre has had its doors shut since the Napoleonic invasion of the country, according to Simon Morrison, a Princeton professor who has written a book on the history of the theatre.
It continued performances through the revolutionary year of 1917, while in 1941 after the Nazi invasion, the Bolshoi moved partly to the city of Kuibyshev. “As soon as the worst of the Wehrmacht air raids were over, the Bolshoi reopened in Moscow. Operations slimmed down and the repertoire simplified, but there was no protracted break,” said Morrison.
Drawing on this spirit of perseverance is either admirably courageous or dangerously reckless, depending on whom you ask. The theatre management feel that with coronavirus here to stay for at least the next few months, they have to find a way to get back to work.
Currently, there are two people isolating with Covid in the ballet troupe and three among the backstage crews. Urin conceded that if cases spread more widely, the theatre may have to close again. “Of course, if in a particular troupe, a larger number of people get ill then we’ll have to put the whole troupe into quarantine,” he said.