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Stripped back opera performances and the propsect of music being delivered through a bluetoothed loudspeaker in a car park doesn't hold any appeal for Robert Sanderson, who suspects other opera lovers may feel the same. 

Question: Would you want to go to the opera like this ?

I wholeheartedly support any valid attempt to widen, increase, sustain, or even just to maintain the audience for opera. It’s a challenging artform for many people, which makes it even more of a challenge to present while the pandemic continues, but there are ways to face the challenges, and ways possibly to be avoided.

Stripped back productions

English National Opera is planning a socially distanced season of "stripped-back" productions, when the number of singers and musicians will be reduced, with sets and productions stripped back.

Opera-goers will arrive at staggered times, through an increased number of entrances, and will be expected to wear masks and gloves for the duration of their visit. Every other row of seats will kept empty, and audiences will be spaced with a two-seat gap between them. Staff working front-of-house will work behind visors and wearing gloves.

Chief executive Stuart Murphy said reducing social distancing to 1-metre meant the venue could operate at about 48% capacity, which he said was workable with smaller productions on stage.

"We’ll use our emergency exits and entrances, so we’ll have three or four. We’ll have staggered arrival times, we’ll insist people wear masks and gloves,.. and we’ll have socially distanced seating, probably with every other row empty and two seats spare [between each person]."

I just cannot see ENO’s audience responding with enthusiasm to this way of going to the opera, and who would want the hassle and cost of getting to the Coliseum, and home again, in order to go through the experience being offered.

Opera goes drive-in

Then there’s the World Premiere of ENO’s so called Drive & Live, billed as a “unique outdoor opera experience’ at Alexandra Palace in North London, with the dreaded tagline “for all ages”.

There’ll be a specially staged 90-minute version of Puccini’s classic La Bohème performed live, featuring the “award-winning ENO Orchestra and Chorus with an outstanding line-up of the best of yung British opera talent.

You’re promised “a great view’ because the live stage action will be relayed on large screens, while you’ll get “amazing” in-car sound as it’ll be broadcast via Bluetooth speakers that you have to collect on arrival.

There’s no particular mention of food and drink, except to say that safe deliveries will be made directly to vehicles, and no mention about bringing your own refreshments, which is highly unlikely but how will they search cars and frisk stroppy operagoers?

Tickets will be in the region of £100 for a car, with a maximum of four occupants. If you don’t have, or don’t want, a car then they are investigating hiring static vehicles (?), and the options for motorbikes and bicycles to be safely distanced at the venue. No references to pedestrians, public transport etc.

The “iconic” Alexandra Palace will be hosting performances from Sept 19 – 27.

Answer: No, not really

Whilst it’s encouraging to see that the excess use of superlative adjectives still survives in opera company press releases, superlatives are no replacement for quality product. I’ve been going to, and loving, opera for over 50 years, so ENO probably don’t have me and their more mature audience in their sights. But I feel confident that neither of the above productions nor innovations will tempt me one bit. For me opera is not presented to you through a bluetoothed loudspeaker in a car park, or abbreviated to the extent that accountants may approve the production but the audience may run a mile in the opposite direction.

Robert Sanderson runs the consultancy Arts Portfolio and was formerly Managing Director of the Theatre Royal & Royal Concert Hall Nottingham. He currently volunteers for ArtsProfessional, curating and co-hosting The Way Forward feature with Margaret Levin.

Read also: COMMENT: So you think you might run a drive-in...? (Thursday 25th June)

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