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Fighting for the arts in a pandemic: ENO Chair says directors doubled up as ‘covid marshalls’ to get La Bohème back on the stage

English National Opera Chairman Dr Harry Brunjes, vice-president of the College of Medicine, reflects on the ENO’s first socially-distanced production…

In the theatre world it certainly has been ‘the season of darkness’ with a predicted ‘winter of despair’, but hopefully there will be ‘the spring of hope’ for us all.

Opera can pull you into healthy creative pandemonium but I never anticipated chairing English National Opera would pull me into a pandemic.  To further plagiarise Dickens, it has been ‘the strangest of times’. Probably for the first time ‘health and safety’ combined in equal measure with ‘drama & music’ to create ‘ENO’s Drive & Live’ production of La Bohème, an unprecedented event in the history of British opera. 

Traditionally, main stage opera has a three-year preparatory time scale. This time Stuart Murphy (Chief Exec), Annilese Miskimmon (Artistic Director) and Martyn Brabbins (Music Director) created this unique performance in only three months. 

They did it! But staging opera during a global pandemic isn’t easy, explains English National Opera Chairman – and vice-president of the College of Medicine – Dr Harry Brunjes (Pictured: the stage of ‘ENO’s Drive & Live’ production of La Bohème ©ENO)

A full rock concert stage was erected at Alexandra Palace. In fact its last outing before lockdown had been for the popstar Rihanna and it now proved to be the perfect setting and size to accommodate Puccini’s La Bohème with a socially distanced cast, chorus and orchestra. 

The ENO chorus and orchestra were divided into ‘two bubbles’ performing on alternate nights, doubling up to safe guard the production in case one bubble was struck down by the virus.  Rehearsals are both a creative and disciplined environment but, on this occasion, there was the third element; adherence to strict public health regulations. 

In fact, neither the Chief Executive nor Chairman were allowed in the rehearsal which hopefully will not be de rigueur when some semblance of normal life re-establishes.

“Besides the demands of learning lines, arias, entrances, exits, cues, staging and blocking there were the added complications of a rehearsal room with square metre grids, perspex screens, temperature checks, masks and sanitation with the performers being answerable not just to an ‘artistic director’ but also a ‘covid marshal’…” 

The whole project was forensically planned by division into three subheadings.  Firstly, ‘building & infrastructure’, secondly, ‘performance & production’ and finally ‘audience management & public safety’.

Opera is, at best, an art form that is innately intimate, the antithesis of coronavirus restrictions. The ingenuity of this range of professional expertise enabled the sensitivity of tragedy and emotion at the core of La Bohème, even though Rodolfo and Mimi needed to remain socially distanced throughout.  La Bohème was the perfect choice for such a brave production the juxtaposition being a clear resonance to current events with Mimi contracting what was called, at the time, consumption. 

‘Spring of hope’: The next challenge for the ENO will be Mozart’s Requiem at the London Coliseum, with an anticipated audience of 1,100 (Pictured: socially distanced ENO meetings ©ENO)

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The trick at Ally Pally was that each car became in effect, its own bubble. Four people were allowed per vehicle with smaller cars at the front and larger vehicles at the back. Sound was courtesy of the car radio FM87.7.  The set, the singing, the music and the sound was of remarkable quality.

Never before has an opera company taken its final curtain call to an avalanche of flashing lights and tooting horns…

As an aside, and as a medic, some would take a view that a doctor (referred to in the final scene) has prescribed drugs for a patient that has never been visited or examined. Concerns could be reinforced by the fact the doctor, although called, does not appear to turn up at all before Mimi dies.  This is, of course, all before the days of ‘virtual appointments’ let alone ‘no win, no fee’!

The next challenge will be Mozart’s Requiem at the London Coliseum.  This is our first attempt at a main stage production since lockdown 23rd March 2020. The London Coliseum (which opened in 1904) has never closed for this length of time, even during the Second World War.  The capacity of the theatre is circa 2350 seats making it the largest theatre in the West End.  The current estimate is that a socially distanced audience will be circa 1100 in total.

English National Opera Chairman, and vice-president of the College of Medicine, Dr Harry Brunjes

The stage has in fact only been used on one occasion since lockdown this year and that was for the full ENO Board meeting at the start of October. It was considered unequivocally the best space compliant with legal parameters.

Mozart’s Requiem will be a complex operation from arrival to exit, contactless tickets, a one way system, track & trace, strict use of facilities, lift capacity, detailed seating allocation and increased ventilation.  The secret will be to provide a clinical and caring environment without removing any of the traditional mystery & magic of a West End production whether opera, musical theatre or drama.

La Bohème at Ally Pally was a triumph and critically acclaimed but it was also contemporaneous.  As I watched the final scene I did envisage a further twist to bring the story into the 21st century.  Mimi is struggling with tuberculosis, a physician appears and  what is more, is therapeutically up to date.  The doctor immediately prescribes a combination of antibiotics containing rifampicin, isoniazid, pyrazinamide and ethambutol for two months followed by rifampicin and isoniazid for a further four months.

The patient fully recovers and after a period of convalescence  fully invigorated, inspired, and aspirational Mimi and Rodolfo, the two lovers, run away, hand in hand to their own ‘Spring of Hope’ and live happily for the rest of their lives in Shoreditch.

Follow English National Opera on Twitter or visit eno.org for more information on future productions