On Saturday evening, if all goes according to plan, the Metropolitan Opera will celebrate a milestone: reaching a long-planned winter break without having to cancel a single performance, even as the pandemic has taken its toll backstage.
As the Omicron variant spread through the city in December and January, the virus disrupted Met operations, with at least 400 singers, orchestral musicians, stagehands, costume designers, dancers, actors and other employees testing positive, according to a snapshot of cases provided by the Met on Friday.
But there are encouraging signs that in the opera house, as in the city, the recent surge has peaked and cases are falling dramatically again.
In the first week of January, as cases reached new heights in New York, more than 100 Met employees tested positive, including six solo singers and five children’s choir members. Last week the total number of positive cases among the Met’s big list of employees had fallen to 22, about the same number as at the start of December, and there have been eight positive tests so far this week.
Peter Gelb, the company’s managing director, said that during Omicron’s worst days he feared the company would be understaffed and unable to operate. But the Met’s strict safety protocols, which included vaccine and mask mandates and regular testing, provided some assurance, he said, that no one would become seriously ill.
“I knew if we could just keep bringing in supplies, as well as getting people back to work as soon as they passed the quarantine period, we would be able to keep performing,” Gelb said. “Our struggle to keep the Met operational in the face of Covid became a unifying force for the whole business as we fought a common enemy.”
The Met has never missed a highlight or a curtain, even as the Omicron Variant has wreaked havoc on the performing arts – resulting in the cancellation of dozens of Broadway shows, concerts and dance performances.
The virus has wreaked havoc on attendance this winter, across all performing arts.
On Broadway, only 62% of seats were occupied the week ending January 9; in the comparable January week before the pandemic, 94% of seats were filled. Last week, after many of the weaker shows shut down and others cut their prices, 75% of all seats were taken, but overall box office receipts were down.
At the Met, where 77% of seats were taken the week of December 18, attendance fell precipitously as the virus grew, hitting a low of 44% in mid-January, before starting to rise again.
Now the Met, the largest performing arts organization in the United States, will have some time to navigate the next phase of the pandemic: it is about to take a long-planned hiatus for much of of February, before returning on February 1. 28 with a star-studded new production of Verdi’s “Don Carlos”.
The company decided in 2018 to institute a mid-season break, well before the outbreak of the coronavirus. The idea was to stop performing in mid-winter, when sales are typically lowest, and add more performances in late spring, moving the end of the opera season to early June from May. The first winter break was due to take effect in the 2020-21 season – the season lost to the coronavirus.
Now – as the recent rise in cases has left performing arts organizations facing alarming attendance – the Met will have nearly a month off.
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“It’s a fluke,” Gelb said of the hiatus, adding that while there will only be one performance in February, backstage rehearsals will continue.
Donations increased during the crisis. Patrons of the Met have provided $110 million in emergency gifts since last summer – more than half in the past two months alone.
Coronavirus cases began to climb at the Met in mid-December. The company responded by tightening its safety protocols, requiring employees to take PCR tests three times a week and forcing singers to wear face masks even during dress rehearsals.
The spike in cases has forced a series of last-minute substitutions, including replacing star singers in productions of “Rigoletto” and “Cinderella.” Met employees said the extensive network of performers has been a plus, but the rush to get them ready before the show can be stressful.
“It’s a bit like the Olympics,” said Gillian Smith, director of actors and dancers at the Met. “Knowing that we don’t want to cancel and knowing that people are coming and wanting to see a show helps create the kind of spirit we need to keep going..”
Gelb said he was hopeful for the rest of the season that cases would continue to drop and audiences would feel comfortable coming back. As cases plummet in the region, he expects older members of the public to return in greater numbers, alongside younger fans who showed up in the fall and winter.
“I’m very optimistic for the second half of the season,” he said, “not only to maintain our record of immaculate performances going forward, but also to have the house full of people.”