Tera Willis was backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, painstakingly adding strand after strand of salt-and-pepper hair to a half-finished wig — one of dozens she and her team were racing to finish in time for opening night later this month after the pandemic had kept performers from getting measured until mid-August.
“I would love about six months,” Ms. Willis, the head of the company’s wig and makeup department, said. “We have six weeks.”
In the Met’s underground rehearsal rooms, chorus members were straining to project through the masks they must rehearse in, a few pulling the fabric a couple of inches from their face for a moment or two. Just outside its gilded auditorium, which has been empty since the pandemic forced the opera house to close a year and half ago, stagehands were reupholstering some worn red velvet seats. Beneath the arched entry to the opera house, an electrician was installing wiring to make some of the heavy front doors touchless.
Reopening after the long shutdown was never going to be easy for the Metropolitan Opera, the largest performing arts company in the nation. Unlike a Broadway theater, which must safely bring back one show, the Met, a $300-million-a-year operation, is planning to mount 196 performances of 22 different operas this season, typically changing what’s on its mammoth stage each night.
The financial stakes are high: The Met, which lost $150 million in earned revenues during the pandemic, must now draw audiences back to its 3,800-seat opera house amid renewed concerns about the spread of the Delta variant. Will people return in force, after getting out of the habit of spending nights at the opera? Will the Met’s strict vaccine mandate — it will ban audience members under 12, who cannot yet be vaccinated — reassure operagoers, especially older ones? How much will travel bans hurt the box office, where international visitors made up as much as 20 percent of ticket buyers?
The Met is warily watching sales. It has sold about $20 million worth of tickets for the season so far, the company said, down from $27 million at the same point in the season before the pandemic. Subscriptions, which have been steadily eroding at American symphony orchestras and opera companies in recent years, are down by about a quarter from before the pandemic, but officials expect more subscribers to renew when they feel safe about attending. Strong recent sales, and the speed with which the Met sold out an affordably priced performance of Verdi’s Requiem on Saturday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, offered hope that audiences will come back.
The financial uncertainty led the Met to seek concessions from its unions, some of which will be restored if and when the box office approaches prepandemic levels. The ensuing labor disputes further complicated the reopening: The company did not reach a deal with its stagehands until July, delaying summer technical rehearsals, and only settled another, with its orchestra, late last month, removing the last major barrier to reopening.
So now the company is gearing up quickly, preparing to marshal the forces of roughly 1,000 singers, orchestra players, conductors, dancers and actors scheduled to perform this season. It started with two free performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” outdoors at Lincoln Center last weekend; will perform Verdi’s Requiem on Saturday, its first performance back inside the opera house, a concert that will be broadcast on PBS; and it will finally open the opera season on Sept. 27 with Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” its first opera by a Black composer. The company is hoping that “Fire” and another contemporary opera — “Eurydice,” by Matthew Aucoin — will draw new audiences.
The whole organization is getting ready to reopen. Keith Narkon, a ticket seller, was with his colleagues behind the Met’s box-office windows, stuffing tickets into envelopes — and happy to be back after the virus had taken away their jobs for more than a year.
“It was just this numbness,” Mr. Narkon, a self-described opera fanatic, said of the long shutdown.
As the opera house buzzes with preseason anticipation, there are still bruised feelings from the labor battles, but there is also a palpable sense of relief to finally be back in the building together and working again after so many months of unemployment checks and uncertainty.
“You don’t realize how much you respect the job until you don’t have it,” said Phillip D. Smith, a stagehand who has worked at the Met for over 20 years, as he ripped the worn velvet off a seat cushion.
But life backstage is still far from normal, as company officials keep a close eye on the Delta variant, and the steps they must take to keep the company and the audience safe.
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The company’s vaccination mandate is so strict that an unvaccinated telecom worker who arrived for a job was turned away. A special patron’s entrance area has been turned into a testing center where people in rehearsals must get nasal-swab tests twice a week. And to keep audience members apart from the performers, the first two rows of seats in the auditorium will be blocked off through the end of the year.
“On one hand, it’s frightening and frustrating to see the rate of infection,” said Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met. “But it’s so thrilling to see the possibility within grasp of actually opening performances.”
Some bitterness lingers over the labor disputes, which were resolved when the company’s three biggest unions agreed to new contracts that cut their pay modestly, saving the company money by moving some workers to a different health care plan and reducing the number of guaranteed full-time members of the orchestra and chorus.
In the props department, where scenic artists were working to create corn on the cob and a pat of butter for a Thanksgiving dinner in the upcoming production of “Fire,” Ryan Hixenbaugh, an artist, lamented that some of the work had been finished in California, where Met management outsourced work after locking out its stagehands in December in the fight over pay cuts.
“We had the capability of making all the scenery for all of these operas here,” Mr. Hixenbaugh said.
Some stagehands made ends meet during the shutdown, and the lockout, by building outdoor shelters for the city’s new al fresco dining spots. Others got work in television production, which rebounded before live performance.
When they returned to the Met in July, the stagehands found an enormous amount of work. For more than a year, the opera house had sat still, as if frozen in time. The decades-old machinery that makes the Met’s stage run was not built for such dormancy.
Two scenic backdrops that had been hanging for months had fallen to the ground earlier in the year. The wheels on the Met’s wagon system — which is powerful enough to quickly shuttle its mammoth sets of Ancient Egypt, Imperial China or Fin-de-Siècle Paris on and offstage — were flattened by the weight of the sets that had been left on top of them. And parts of the fly system, made up of wire rope lines and riggings, had rusted.
“To leave it sitting still for that length of time was terrifying,” said David Feheley, the Met’s technical director. “So many of these systems have lasted as long as they have because of constant attention.”
To accommodate all the urgent maintenance work, the Met’s technical rehearsals were pushed from the beginning of August to the end of the month. One opera, Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride,” was canceled.
The orchestra saw 11 of its 96 regular full-time members retire or leave their jobs during the pandemic, according to the orchestra committee, which negotiates labor issues on behalf of the musicians. A number of veteran stagehands retired too.
The company hopes the excitement of working together again will outweigh any residual resentment.
“The Met is maybe slightly fractured,” Mr. Gelb said, “but it is a family.”
At this stage of the pandemic, it’s a family that can’t have any members under the age of 12, and not just in the audience. The Met’s performers cannot be young, either. In “Boris Godunov,” which is scheduled to open on Sept. 28, a part that is often sung by a boy soprano will be given to an adult mezzo-soprano. And in “Fire” — which is based on a memoir by Charles Blow, an Opinion columnist for The New York Times — a 13-year-old, Walter Russell III, will play the role of young Charles, who is supposed to be 7.
“I have been trying to get into the mind of a 7-year-old kid,” Mr. Russell said.
To reopen smoothly, the Met’s staff members still have numerous battles to wage.
Everything from fabrics for costumes to machinery for stage lights to basic materials like plywood and steel are proving difficult to obtain because of pandemic supply-chain problems. And booking the international performers opera relies on has become a mess of unpredictable red tape, between visa troubles and virus-related travel restrictions.
One of the few times performers can take their masks off these days is when they are being fitted in the costume shop, for photos that are taken to help designers take in the effect of each costume.
“If there’s an unspoken feeling, normally I would be able to see that on a performer’s face, but I can’t access that,” said Paul Tazewell, the Tony-winning costume designer for “Fire.”
But, come Sept. 27 — if all goes as planned — the masks will come off, the Sputnik chandeliers will ascend, the curtain will go up and live opera will be back onstage.
Zachary Woolfe contributed reporting.