At the peak of cold and flu season—which overlaps with the opera and symphony season—it’s typical to hear coughs, sniffles, and sneezes during performances. In 2018, conductor Riccardo Muti stopped his Chicago Symphony Orchestra mid-performance when someone coughed loudly. Back then, his reaction was viewed as extreme, but post-Covid-19, will ushers escort culprits from the hall for endangering the maestro, orchestra, and audience?
The past could be a prelude here. In 1918, the Spanish flu caused many performing-arts institutions to shutter nationwide—but not in New York City, where health commissioner Royal S. Copeland chose not to close most theaters. Instead, Copeland insisted that they remain open and undergo thorough cleaning and sanitation. In addition, he instructed theaters to make onstage announcements about how to limit the spread of influenza and safeguard the public. In a New York Times interview from that year, addressing many of the concerns that we have today, Copeland explained how audience members received detailed directions on etiquette—including about coughing and sneezing. He advised that “any one that did not obey instructions in that matter would be ushered to the door.”
The Metropolitan Opera’s archive shows no interruption of performances during the Spanish flu pandemic; no less a star than Enrico Caruso, the Italian opera singer, was performing at the time. Interestingly, Caruso’s 1918 debut in Ann Arbor was postponed due to the flu outbreak in that city. Around the same time, in nearby Grand Rapids, the Marx Brothers premiered a new show, The Street Cinderella, hoping to bring it to Broadway. The audience, wearing masks, sat in every other seat and row. The comedy brothers blamed the quality of the play, rather than the flu, for the show’s failure.
The Spanish flu ultimately killed more than 20,000 people in New York City and at least 675,000 across America. A review of the post-pandemic actions in performance venues, however, shows little evidence that hygienic measures continued beyond that period.
As commerce resumes in the months ahead, how will dancers, actors, and athletes perform in intimate concert halls and theater quarters and arenas? Assuming that those onstage are healthy and Covid-19 free, the audience will hold the key. Since audiences make up the majority of people at any performance, keeping ill spectators away will serve as the next great battle in the performing arts. After 9/11, performance venues replicated airports’ screening process by prohibiting certain items and checking all bags. In a post-coronavirus country, it’s plausible that venues will arm employees with forehead thermometers to ensure a fever-free audience.
The show must go on, and that requires performing-arts institutions to consider how to respond in the coming weeks. The now-standard “no cellphones” announcement, for example, could be accompanied by a new warning: “If you’re not feeling well, you shouldn’t be here.” Carnegie Hall could replace its Ricola lozenge dispensers with masks and Purell. Many theaters may even require “Covid-19-free” wristbands for ticket holders. It’s also likely that attendees will practice social distancing by sitting in every other seat and row, as in 1918. And then there’s the price of entry: will tickets double or triple in cost in the short-term because of smaller audiences? Perhaps new performances will be streamed live on password-protected sites, where theaters can recoup lost in-person ticket revenues.
The performing arts can’t afford months of inactivity. The Metropolitan Opera is already facing a $60 million shortfall from cancelling the remainder of its season. According to general manager Peter Gelb, global audiences have streamed the equivalent of 100 million minutes of non-revenue-producing free Met content. The cumulative impact on New York’s performing-arts sector could reach the hundreds of millions of dollars—after just one economic quarter.
Everyone agrees that public safety is paramount to getting life going again. To that end, we should be hopeful that after the pandemic, audience members who feel ill will self-isolate. A consequence of this challenging period could be a safer, quieter, and more enjoyable theater experience for all.
Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images