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Just keep going

Back onstage at last! But before that can happen, opera director Christophe Seuferle has spent months emailing, phoning, rescheduling, placating patrons and ensemble. A conversation about the fine art of planning

Find here the complete programme from 27 September

Herr Seuferle, the regulations are changing almost on a daily basis – and with it the calendar. How do you manage to juggle so many balls at one time?
I focus on the things that aren’t shifting. At the moment that’s the premiere of THE VALKYRIE on 27th September. Thanks to a sophisticated testing routine, we’ll be able to mount the production exactly as we originally wanted to.

How does the testing routine work?
Everyone involved in rehearsals is tested daily for Covid-19. That’s 50 tests a day and another 100 for the orchestra in the pit. We need fast and reliable negatives so we can rehearse without fear. Luckily the lab we’re using is up to the task. All other events have to be altered to comply with distancing.

How do the chorus singers keep their distance?
At the moment the rule is two metres between any two singers, which renders any operas featuring big choruses impossible. With that kind of distancing a chorus wouldn’t even fit onstage, so we have to improvise. We have a concertante version of TOSCA in October with the chorus positioned backstage. You associate Wagner with big choruses, but THE VALKYRIE doesn’t have one.

How do you get any planning done when planning is impossible?
We move along the timeline, troubleshooting as we go. We know that some of the works scheduled can be done in concertante form. I try to get the contracted artists to adjust their diaries.

As a director of opera you’re responsible for casting, so you’re at the epicentre of the chaos. What are the biggest challenges you face?
In the worst case we just have to cancel the singers. It’s awful having to do that, but everyone understands that there’s no way we can stick to the original programme.

That puts freelancers in a precarious situation. How do you deal with that?
We have procedures that provide a modicum of financial support, but the fact is that for many freelancers a string of cancellations is a disaster. Sometimes a reasonably steady income stream dries up completely. Obviously we try to salvage contracts. In our »Best of« evenings devoted to the best arias of a particular opera we still have the contracted artists appearing. In October, for instance, Aigul Akhmetshina will be singing concertante in our »Best of Carmen«. She’s one of the new mezzo-sopranos to watch.

Opera is a global business. How is it being conducted in the current situation?
It’s complicated. A lot of artists arrive from at-risk countries. As things stand, they’re having to prove they’ve been Covid-negative in the last 48 hours. From October onwards there will probably be a blanket five-day quarantine for all people coming from at-risk regions. We’re already gearing for problems.

You have brought new talent to the Deutsche Oper Berlin for the new season. How are they settling in to the ensemble?
You wouldn’t believe the hoops these young singers have had to jump through to get here. Some are from the US and the visa-issuing offices weren’t manned, applications weren’t being processed. One artist wasn’t allowed to fly. They were all looking forward to their big moments onstage … Now all we can do is prepare.

How are you helping these young singers?
Our pianists are currently doing as much as they can with singers on roles that they can be reasonably sure to be singing in the spring. They’re also rehearsing roles from the repertoire that just take their fancy. That way they don’t get out of practice.

How do you keep your brilliant ensemble in a good mood?
For the sake of our ensemble – and audiences, too, of course – we’re putting on piano-led, aria-only events, in which the ensemble presents its favourite pieces, arias as well as ensemble numbers. I can’t wait to hear them all together onstage for the first time in months.

How do you keep your own spirits up?
I’m optimistic by nature. It’s obvious to me that this thing will pass. Everyone’s ultra-motivated at the moment. Some people used to complain about their workload and they’re now, like, »When can we get back onstage?« I sense people are raring to go. There may also be more humility regarding the part we play in all this. On any given evening the stage and pit are open to anyone wanting to »play«. Is there any nicer way to be passing the time and at the same time earning a living?

Are there any low points?
No low points. We put on a brave face and just keep going.