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Europe’s Theaters Go Back to the Future With Covid Restrictions

For months, Europe’s opera, music and theater fans have been flocking to packed venues as if the coronavirus pandemic was fading from view. Now that feeling of freedom is receding for many.

In Vienna, all performances are now banned until at least Dec. 13, after Austria imposed a lockdown to deal with a rise in coronavirus cases. The Dec. 5 premiere of the Vienna State Opera’s new production of “Don Giovanni,” directed by Barrie Kosky, will be televised from an empty house.

In Munich, performances are still taking place at the city’s storied Bavarian State Opera despite a surge in cases in Bavaria. Only vaccinated patrons or those who have recovered from Covid-19 are allowed in, and they must also all show proof of a negative coronavirus test and wear a medical-grade mask. According to new rules announced Tuesday, venues in Bavaria can admit only 25 percent of their maximum capacity.

In Milan, there are no restrictions on audience numbers at venues including La Scala, and no social distancing requirements — but only vaccinated audience members are allowed in.

The confusing picture across the continent has been getting more complicated by the day in recent weeks as national and regional governments respond to a new wave of cases and as an alert about a new variant prompts concern. On Wednesday, Germany reported 79,051 new cases — its highest daily number since the pandemic began.

After months of relative normalcy, Europe’s opera houses, concert halls and theaters are reintroducing measures all too familiar from earlier phases of the pandemic, restricting audience numbers and mandating testing, if not canceling shows outright. Some cultural workers at venues where the doors are still open are concerned that they might not stay that way for long.

Leipzig Opera’s production of “Hänsel and Gretel” has been canceled for the rest of the company’s season because of coronavirus measures.Credit…Oper Leipzig

Despite the new prevention measures, the mood was “very different” from previous lockdowns, said Ulf Schirmer, the general music director of Leipzig Opera, in eastern Germany. All performances in the city of Leipzig are banned until Jan. 9.

“We’ve learned so much from past lockdowns,” Schirmer said, “we now know what to do.”

Leipzig Opera would lose 1 million euros, about $1.1 million, by refunding tickets for canceled performances across all shows, Schirmer added. The company could cope with that, he said, because it receives a significant government subsidy and has sufficient reserves.

Other venues throughout the continent, where the pace of cancellations and restrictions has been accelerating since last month, might not be in such a secure position. Latvia was one of the first countries to impose new restrictions on cultural life, when it ordered performance venues shut from late October as part of a national lockdown. Since then many other countries and regions have imposed new, if varied, restrictions. This month, the Netherlands went into a partial lockdown that let performances continue in front of seated audiences but forced other venues such as bars and restaurants to close by 8 p.m. Austria initially introduced a lockdown for unvaccinated people that included barring them from attending cultural events, before announcing a nationwide lockdown days later.

Some venues that remain open in Europe are putting in place extra safety measures, even without government mandates. In Berlin, performance venues are allowed to operate at full capacity, as long as attendees show proof that they are vaccinated, recovered or provide a negative test, and wear a mask. But Sarah Boehler, a spokeswoman for the Sophiensaele, a theater in the city, said her venue would also require a negative test in addition to either proof of vaccination or recovery. The theater expected that city officials would require such a measure “in a week or two anyway,” she said, adding it was better to get ahead of the curve.

There is one place that looks unlikely to see new restrictions on cultural life: Britain, where governing lawmakers have spoken since July of the need to live with the virus. New coronavirus cases have averaged around 40,000 a day for the past month, and one of the government’s leading scientific advisers this week said the country was “almost at herd immunity.”

In England, theater and opera goers are not required to wear masks, or show proof of vaccination. Instead, each venue can decide its own requirements. Many West End theaters ask for proof of vaccination, and most encourage spectators to wear masks, but enforcement varies.

This month, a revival of “Cabaret,” starring Eddie Redmayne at the Playhouse Theater, went further than other London shows by requiring attendees to show a negative test result to gain entry. The Ambassador Theater Group, which owns the venue, said in a statement that “the intimacy of the production” in which the audience sits close to the actors, was behind the decision. But no other theaters have appeared to follow its lead.

The composer and theater impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber on Tuesday told the BBC he would be happy to mandate masks and proof of vaccination at the six theaters he owns in London. “If that was what was necessary to keep our theaters open without social distancing, I think that’s a very small price to pay,” he said.

Even if few in Britain’s theater world anticipate new restrictions, elsewhere in Europe, where governments are weighing actions to curb rising case numbers, industry figures are worried that more closures are on the way.

“Everyone is still very concerned there will be another lockdown soon,” said Boehler of the Sophiensaele. “We just hope vaccinated people will be in a position to keep going to the theater.”

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