Coronaclassical 11: Opera’s Kobayashi Maru Test

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” – Dr Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park

The Guardian ran a good article last week from the owner of Vanderlyle, a restaurant in Cambridge, explaining why, despite the UK government’s decree that businesses such as his can reopen from July 4th, he’ll be staying shut.

Alex Rushmer: “Here’s why we won’t be opening on 4 July”

He cites three issues: the unpredictability of potential quarantine closures should a staff member or customer test positive; the financial viability of operating with 30-50% capacity because of social distancing; and the essential quality of the whole experience under current conditions.

Back in the opera world, the government’s advice for performing venues is even more vague and perplexing than that for restaurants. Theatres and concert halls can reopen, but not put on live performances. Eh?

Nevertheless, glimmers of bright ideas continue to emerge. English National Opera are at the forefront of the opening-up debate, outlining plans for a socially-distanced opera season in the autumn, with the reduction of the recommended safe separation to 1 metre allowing them to operate at 48% audience capacity, or so they say. This would replace their much-postponed production of Hairspray, and the fact that they seem to have realised, whether by accident or design, the inherent contradiction in an opera company asking for taxpayers’ money in order to stage a commercial musical is to be welcomed. No government, and this one least of all, would require much of a second invitation to pursue that train of thought to its logical conclusion. With any luck, ENO will be employing opera singers later this year, and that has to be a good thing.

If any company is well-placed to strike out into the “New Normal”, it may indeed be ENO. The cavernous Coliseum has always been something of a mixed blessing for the company, but all that space should be a clear advantage when it comes to socially distancing an audience, and 48% capacity is still well over a thousand seats there. A glance at their accounts for recent seasons suggests that the box office has accounted for around 20% of their overall income, so a reduction in ticket sales should prove less of a problem for their business model than for some other companies.

That seems to bode well for addressing two of Alex Rushmer’s restaurant issues at least. If the government and/or sponsors can somehow be persuaded to make up the ticketing shortfall, perhaps there is a non-ruinous or even near-viable financial model here, in the short term at least.

How about the quality of the experience? ENO have mooted chamber-style performances, with limited numbers of performers on stage and in the pit, and a thrifty approach to production costs. This is where the Coliseum’s size may be less of an advantage, but will at least be interesting to watch, especially for those of us who occasionally query the sanity of an industry where often more is spent on the costumes than on the performers wearing them. Is all that really necessary? I guess we’re about to find out.

Furthermore, with British singers sitting at home enviously twiddling our thumbs as we watch our colleagues in other parts of Europe get back to work, they’ll be spoilt for choice as never before when it comes to casting. So there’s every reason to suppose that the quality of the singing will more than make up for any austerity on the visual side of things.


“Logic? My God, the man’s talking about logic; we’re talking about universal armageddon.” – Dr Leonard McCoy, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

On the general subject of getting showbusiness back on the road, what hasn’t been discussed anywhere near as much as these other two aspects is the third issue in the Guardian piece, which is the potential for disruption from the virus itself. According to the NHS’ Test and Trace guidelines, the approach seems to be that if anyone comes into contact with an infected individual, they are required to quarantine for 14 days. It’s not clear what constitutes “contact” in this context, but one positive case would presumably lay waste to any carefully planned rehearsal schedule. And then throw 1000 members of the public into the mix at a performance… The potential for chaos is immense, and it’s already causing problems in other countries.

One suggestion of a relatively low-cost way in which the government could help get us back on stage is for them to provide regular testing for cast and crew members, as has been happening (presumably at their own expense) with professional football teams. It seems like an alluring solution, but the devil is in the detail: even given high priority, we could expect a 24 hour wait for results. So, for example, we might test everyone on Sunday morning ready to start rehearsals the next day – and then repeat every couple of days, with a day off each time to wait for results. Or perhaps given an even bigger budget, we could have a rolling system of tests every day, although professional singers might soon tire of an invasive naso-pharyngeal swab at the start or finish of every rehearsal.

Bear in mind that the data on the reliability of tests when applied to non-symptomatic patients is still limited – understandably, the focus for most countries has been on testing those with symptoms, and the most severe ones at that. So it’s not at all clear how accurate pre-emptive tests are for those without symptoms are at the moment. It would only take one false negative to really put the cat among the pigeons.

On top of that, the “bubble” demands being made on footballers are strict, essentially taking over every aspect of their lives – would singers be willing or able to put up with that? And if not, or they got it slightly wrong, would a company then risk having to suspend them, as Watford did with three of their players at the weekend? (Worth noting perhaps that, even though footballers are more readily replaceable than singers, Watford still lost their match.)

And then, what happens to a singer in the case of a positive test? If they have to quarantine for two weeks, and miss a string of performances, under our current system of remuneration, they don’t get paid, at all. To make such a system work in the UK you’d need to rethink the whole freelance model – which isn’t a bad idea for many reasons, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.

The closer you look, the deadlier you realise the minefield of even the known-unknowns is. On balance I’m heartily glad that I’m only watching from behind the barbed wire, rather than trying to plot a course through it as our industry leaders are obliged to, even though it means I’m stony broke as a result. It must be tempting, even perhaps the only vaguely sane financial option, to consider the Southbank Centre‘s suggestion of battening down the hatches in the hope of riding out the storm until a full reopening is possible. Could they reopen in a more limited way in the meantime? Maybe. Should they? Probably not.

But it’s a Kobayashi Maru test, and the fact is that we need the more intrepid space cadets to succeed. The current crisis has exposed in most brutal fashion the systemic flaw where classical music relies entirely on live performances to distribute funds to a huge proportion of its most valuable artists. Vanderlyle has a fallback option of operating as a takeaway-only restaurant for the time being. Freelance musicians have no such Plan B. So even those of us who are very rarely on the radar of ENO’s casting department need its approach, and others like it, to pay off.

And I suspect that it has more chance of shaking the government into some sort of action – a concrete proposition would at least force them into a Yes or No answer. It surely beats sitting around waiting for them to reveal their masterfully elaborate rescue plan: as with almost every other aspect of this crisis, it must be pretty clear by now that there isn’t one.

Too little, too late? It would be better than nothing at all.

About Paul Carey Jones

Paul Carey Jones is Welsh and also Irish, and he used to be an opera singer back when that was a thing. He should be writing about the current state of classical music but might well digress into science, science fiction, politics, football, cricket, cheese, or driving unimpressive cars. You can contact him via comments here or at:
This entry was posted in Coronavirus, Music, Opera, Politics, Science, Science Fiction, singing, Theatre and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Coronaclassical 11: Opera’s Kobayashi Maru Test

  1. Pingback: Coronaclassical: Drilling Holes in the Titanic | Ranitidine & Tonic

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