Italy's opera houses facing unusual challenges due to coronavirus outbreak

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Still unsure when Italy's national coronavirus strategy will allow it to reopen, the famed Teatro alla Scala opera house in Milan announced a plan that would launch its next season in September -- three months ahead of schedule -- with a program to mourn the lives lost during the viral outbreak.

Whenever opera season restarts at the Teatro alla Scala and other major opera houses in Italy, observers said it will unlike any other season on record.

Reopening tentative

The planned performance at the Teatro alla Scala is for Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem, an iconic piece first performed in public in Milan in 1874 to mourn the death of poet Alessandro Manzoni.

The plans for the reopened opera season are tentative depending on how Italy's efforts to curb the outbreak play out. But opera officials said the piece was chosen in honor of the Italian victims of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

According to the latest data, the disease had claimed nearly 30,000 lives in Italy.

"The choice of the opera and the time were announced as a kind of gesture of good faith for the future," Stefano Jacini, an opera critic and the author of multiple books on music, told Xinhua. "It's far too early to know whether the opera house will actually be able to open or not. They're being optimistic."

Opera is a quintessentially Italian art form, one that first emerged in Italy in the 16th century before spreading across the rest of Europe and beyond. Even the word "opera" is Italian, meaning a musical "work."

Unusual obstacles

The Teatro alla Scala -- as well as other important Italian opera houses including La Fenice in Venice, the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, Palermo's Teatro Massimo, the Teatro dell' Opera in Rome, the Teatro Regio in Parma and the like-named Teatro Regio of Turin -- will face unusual obstacles before reopening.

Jacini noted that social distancing rules requiring people to stay two meters apart and use protective equipment such as face masks and gloves will be particularly hard on any opera chorus, where singers' mouths will have to be uncovered and where they have to be close enough to each other to harmonize their voices. Orchestras and even the audience will face social distancing challenges as well.

"It will be a different kind of opera once all these factors are taken into consideration," Jacini said.

Financial considerations are another major factor. Jacini said Teatro alla Scala is going deeper in the red every day while closed. Similarly, Venice's La Fenice has lost at least 8 million euros in ticket sales because of the national lockdown, according to Fortunato Ortombina, La Fenice's superintendent and artistic director.

News reports state that other major opera houses are facing similar economic challenges as they struggle to pay staff and maintain their properties during the shutdown.

"It's an enormous challenge for us," Ortombina told Xinhua. "We were among the first institutions to close under the quarantine and will be among the last to completely reopen. Nobody has any idea how long this will last, but the financial damage will be significant." 

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