Audience and musicians reunited as Copenhagen’s Opera House reopens

Andrew Mellor
Monday, June 8, 2020

The Royal Danish Opera becomes the first in Europe to welcome orchestra, chorus, soloists and audiences back into its theatre

Partying at a distance - but music-making for an audience at last (photo: Tjill Dreyer)
Partying at a distance - but music-making for an audience at last (photo: Tjill Dreyer)

The sooner we shut down, the sooner we open up. That much was implicit when a shaky-voiced Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, announced Denmark’s relatively early Covid-19 lockdown on March 11. As she spoke, a performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo was starting across the water at Copenhagen’s opera house. The cast learned that this show would be their last even as it was playing out on stage. Artistic Director John Fulljames photographed them accepting applause from the wings and posted it on twitter. ‘Idomeneo steps down and the show ends in the hope of a new start,’ he captioned it, with reference to the opera’s plot; ‘the monster is vanquished.’

Covid-19 may not be vanquished, but the Royal Danish Opera came back to life on Sunday, and sooner than anyone had expected. It had promised us the new season as planned, beginning on August 30. The surprise scheduling of Sunday’s concert, less than two weeks in advance, felt like a gesture of sustenance – as much for the Royal Theatre’s hundreds of performing staff as for its hungry audience. The internet has kept lines of communication open during lockdown, but that is not enough, said the theatre’s CEO Kasper Holten, speaking from the stage; ‘we need to be together, experiencing live performances with each other in the same room.’

And so we did – 500 of us inside Henning Larsen’s horseshoe auditorium and in Business Class conditions: upper levels closed and lower down, every other seat sealed off with a red ribbon to satisfy Denmark’s 1-metre social distancing regulations and the audience instructed to arrive 30 minutes in advance, taking their seats in groups. It was a privilege to be here, with better sightlines and more elbow room than ever (and easy, too, in a spacious modern opera house where social distancing in the foyers was a habit long before Covid). But the event itself felt strangely disorientating: was it a celebration? Was it a commemoration? Was it a hesitant emergence or a triumphant return? If the half-empty auditorium created its own atmospheric limbo, the programme did the same – lacking anything really meaty (it felt like a season preview) and stopping too often for excitable speechifying from the stage. This was a time for maximum music.

On stage, the Royal Danish Orchestra – and few ensembles can put a crisis in context like this one. As the oldest orchestral institution in the world, it was well over 200 when the Great Plague ravaged London in the 1660s. The hiatus of 2020 is the longest its musicians have been apart for nearly six centuries and few works could have sprung it from that prison of silence with more verve or resonance than the Overture to Maskarade by Carl Nielsen, an erstwhile member.

The piece went off like a liberated racehorse under Thomas Søndergård, before settling into its lyrical stride with the confidence of outright joy. Some lips and fingers are clearly a little way from match fitness and nor was the audience ready to party; the first live orchestral music for months was, in the moment, more moving than exhilarating. Never has this candy-cane piece sounded so full of conflicting emotions, but that might have had something to do with the sound of the orchestra’s strings, aristocratic even when cantering through figurations and patterning.

The Nordic region has emerged rapidly from the initial paralysis of Covid. Orchestras have played in Norway and Finland in recent weeks; in Sweden, some never stopped. Last week, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra invited an audience into its concert hall in Reykjavik for the first time since lockdown and without the sort of strict spacing restrictions we saw, and will see in the coming weeks, in Copenhagen.

But there are lingering fears about singing. The sight of the male members of the Royal Opera Chorus rollicking through the Brindisi from Verdi’s La traviata with plenteous space between them was a direct reflection of new social norms: partying at a distance. Close your eyes, and there was no lack of proximity. Holten ensured us that operatic singing, according to research, isn’t as dangerous as social media insinuates. During a series of excerpts from The Magic Flute (in Danish), Nina S Clausen tore into ‘Der Hölle Rache’ with all the abandon of a professional who has been vocally restrained for months. Don’t expect singers, who have been singled-out as dangerous during all this, to suddenly go quiet when they’re back on stage.

Mozart’s opera, like most of the works dipped into, is on imminent rehearsal schedules for next season. But there was also a poignant look back. Ann Petersen from the soloists’ ensemble gave a fortitudinous account of ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ from Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos – one of two productions scheduled for the end of the current season that never made it onto stage. She and her deeply rooted voice know this orchestra and its dark colours intimately. Vice versa; each harnessed the stillness and patience in the other. Peace was fashioned from despair, in a way it might not have been three months ago.

If there was an obvious piece of symbolism among this slightly opportunistic smorgasbord of operatic titbits, it was Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No 3. Søndergård went big on its mustering of sustenance from deep darkness, the sudden ignition of hope via a distant trumpet call (placed high in the auditorium) and the rapture and heroism that bring it home. This felt like the gesture Denmark’s and Europe’s music life needed: something more than survival – actual heroism from musicians taking calculated risks, and concrete delivery from management on the principle that what we need now is live music, the strongest act of communication there is.

Beethoven’s trumpet call echoed the brass-only fanfare with which the concert had opened – the first public performance of a Fanfare for the Royal Danish Orchestra by Frederik Magle (b. 1977). It is a rousing ceremonial piece based on a clear, repeating triadic motif. Midway through, the music modulates abruptly, as if into a parallel universe. Everything has changed, all is momentarily disorientating, the tonic key apparently gone forever. But still, the music finds its way to brilliance.

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