The Santa Fe Opera has a new cast member for the 2021 season: a COVID-19 compliance and safety manager.

Mike VanAartsen joined the company in that role in January. He’s setting the opera’s guidelines for masks, social distancing, hand sanitizing and all the other safety protocols that go with preparing for a summer opera season and welcoming patrons for performances.

Nobody has attended an opera in Santa Fe for more than a year. Things have changed.

If the season indeed opens July 10, patrons will have to wear masks at all times on the opera campus, including throughout the performances, VanAartsen said.

One hundred hand sanitizer stations are on order.

And for the first time, the Santa Fe Opera will not sell paper tickets. Ticketing has been digitized and patrons will present their smartphones to gain entry. Patrons can also print out tickets at home.

“Scanned entry is a change for us,” VanAartsen said.

It’s all about having as contactless a transaction as possible.

The Santa Fe Opera took COVID-19 mitigation to heart even before canceling the 2020 season. Creating the COVID-19 compliance and safety manager position and hiring VanAartsen formalized the process.

“I would say the real focus last summer was really putting opera back on stage,” General Director Robert K. Meya said. “Now we are actually figuring out ways to get singers on stage, how to rehearse. We have to figure out how to keep them safe.”

Meya was impressed with VanAartsen’s certifications in first aid, mental health first aid, crowd management and additional training with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, World Health Organization and American Red Cross.

“We had a need for a specific person whose sole focus was developing plans and protocols for reopening the theater, someone who can reach across the departments,” Meya said. “All of that has been more challenging because [of remote working by many opera employees]. Mike’s appointment is part of the Santa Fe Opera’s evolving strategy for protecting the health of our audiences and all who visit and work at the Santa Fe Opera.”

As of now, audience capacity for the opera season will be 25 percent of seats filled, but the opera has also limited the presence of its staff at “The Ranch” for most of the past year. Normally, about 90 employees would be on-site, but now only 30 people are working on the opera property, with most administrative staff working from home, said Emily Doyle Moore, the opera’s director of media and public relations.

“Everybody who can work at home is encouraged to do so,” Doyle Moore said. “I’m working at home.”

VanAartsen arrived in Santa Fe in January after spending most of the last four years at the Yale School of Drama, working on his master’s degree in technical design and production.

“My master’s thesis was disaster and crisis response planning in the performing arts,” VanAartsen said.

Little did he know 2½ years ago when he settled on the subject that his job would be front and center and the linchpin to assure a season for a top 10 U.S. opera company.

Until now, VanAartsen has had a largely journeyman career across 20 years picking up seasonal and short-term theater contracts on both coasts and in between. He spent five years as a scenic technician at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts until 2017 and a year at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

“The first step was evaluation,” VanAartsen said of his opening weeks at the Santa Fe Opera. “There was so much to respond to, understanding everything that exists. Part of what I have to do is know how we have done things in the past. How do we continue to work safely? What we are doing is layers of mitigating. We’re putting many layers in place to reduce the risk of any activity. The solution for one group might not work with another. It’s a lot of empty offices, Zoom meetings, telephone calls and emails.”

These layers are the most mundane: masks, social distancing and sanitizing.

As Meya mentioned, VanAartsen deals with all departments, breaking down the silos that can develop between the trades at any business, even an opera company. The opera had plenty of COVID-19 precautions before he arrived.

“It’s more about being here to support, getting things to the appropriate parties. Everybody has rules already,” VanAartsen said. “We want to go above and beyond the recommendations we’re seeing. How do we do that?”

Part of the answer is analyzing everything each individual position does and mining for potential risks.

“We are really evaluating the lines of communications for risk awareness and being open to learn each day,” he said. “Flexibility is a key factor.”

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