After the exceedingly relaxed dress code of a very virtual pandemic, how thrilling to welcome back live theater at the iconic Santa Fe Opera, which kicked off Saturday night.
In all seriousness, there is great poignancy in this moment. The opera world lost beloved performers, supporters and leaders to the pandemic. And many lost their livelihood. It’s not unusual to shed a tear at the opera. This year, however, you just might for its very presence.
One of the major stars of the summer calendar, the 2021 season includes the timeless Mozart classic The Marriage of Figaro, the world premiere of The Lord of Cries and a special performance by acclaimed soprano Angel Blue.
For my annual theater etiquette “libretto,” I interviewed the Santa Fe Opera’s COVID-19 compliance and safety manager, Mike VanAartsen, to help make the operagoing experience a safe and award-winning one for you and your fellow theatergoers.
“My goal is to be a supporter of safety in the arts,” said VanAartsen, who recently completed coursework with Yale School of Drama’s Technical Design and Production Program, with particular focus on life safety, public health and crisis management.
Be assured, this goal to put on an in-person, on-schedule full opera season with apprentice series, one of the first in the country if not internationally, deserves a booming “Bravo!” It’s one thing to ensure the safety of operagoers by having them adhere to rote mask-wearing and social distancing; it’s a whole other production to create a protocol for performers, musicians, and creative and technical support during the weeks of rehearsals behind the scenes.
Backstage COVID-19 testing was frequent and based on risk level, with performers and those adjacent in the highest tier being tested multiple times a week. For every mask you see in the front of the house, there is one in the back.
Theatergoers this season will find the familiar safety precautions we’ve all become accustomed to during the pandemic, such as social distancing, plexiglass and masks. The latter will be required upon arrival at the box office entrance and for the remainder of the evening at your seat, as well as in washrooms and while taking in the majestic views. If forgotten, a mask will be provided, or consider purchasing one in the gift shop. Moments of respite may be had during intermissions while actively drinking or eating, and the staff understands a breath of fresh air on one of the spacious terraces might be needed so long as social distancing is followed.
VanAartsen places an emphasis on “distance and comfort” being the standard this season. Theatergoers will find an empty seat between ticket purchase groups or pods, your friends you purchased tickets with and with whom you may safely socialize. The theater ticket is printed out with your recommended primary bar and washroom location to reduce crowding.
To avoid the long washroom queues at intermission, guests may pop out during a performance, and ushers will reseat them during an appropriate pause.
For those attending the simulcast opera presentations in the parking lot, akin to a drive-in theater experience, the same standard of distance and comfort applies. While the emphasis is on safety, if you “make a stop and visit your friends” in a neighboring space, “we won’t inhibit that” VanAartsen said. The obvious layer of safety at the Santa Fe Opera is its location: the open-air setting.
There’s no shortage of aggravating disturbances at the theater, be it an opera, play or concert. From sniffles to searching for gum, people’s personal habits can steal the show.
For those attending the in-person performances, give yourself a standing ovation after following this program of theater dos and don’ts.
- Dress for the occasion. Be it ballgowns, bolo ties or bedazzled masks, putting some thought into your wardrobe shows effort and makes it special not only for you but for those around you. Be mindful of strong fragrances, jingly jewelry and tall hats.
- Arrive on time or early. Be fashionable but not fashionably late. Doing so allows you to take in the view and ambience, see friends and read your program before curtain time.
- Upon arrival, stop by the concessions stand to see if you can prepay for your drinks at intermission. They will be poured and waiting for you so you won’t have to stand in the long line, allowing you to sip at a leisurely pace.
- Have the sniffles? Raid the pharmacy en route to the theater. A coughing fit over a minute warrants stepping out. Keep tissues handy in your pocket.
- Avoid getting in a row when inching along the row. Depending on the protrusiveness of your posterior, row etiquette comes down to choosing the lesser of two evils. Facing the stage allows you to lean forward and put a hand on the seatback in front of you for balance. Facing in feels quite intimate if the guest in front of you remains seated. When possible, rise to let guests pass.
- Remove candies from their crinkly wrappers at the beginning of the evening and keep them handy in a soft-sided pouch or inside a tissue in your pocket. A theater’s acoustics also do wonders for zippers and rustling.
- The ringing, buzzing and illuminated screen of the smartphone makes the once-loathed digital watch, which was always set to go off during an evening performance, seem tame and old-fashioned in comparison. Unless you have a sitter at home, turn off mobile phones or put them on silent at the minimum. The vibrate setting is too disruptive. Follow house rules when it comes to taking photos and using recording devices. Exit the theater if you truly must be connected to the outside world during a performance.
- When in doubt, pause before applause. Follow the lead of seasoned operagoers who recognize the difference between the end of an entire piece versus a movement.
- Keep whispers to a minimum. Be mindful of tapping feet and rocking seats that might affect the experience of another guest.
- Unless you have an aisle seat near the back, stay through the end of the performance.
- Adopt a leave-no-trace ethic at the theater. Carry your wrappers, tissues and program with you to dispose of or recycle in a proper receptacle.
- Follow the rules, have patience, and be kind to ushers and all staff. Don’t go expecting it to be like old times. Go knowing that in spite of COVID-19 and every safety precaution made for you, the show still went on. That alone deserves more accolades than an individual opera. The performance of the year is the opera season itself.