Creativity through constraint
The masks are off: how artistry & safety harmonise this summer
Planning the Garsington Opera season in a pandemic has been an art in itself. Our ultimate aim was to arrive on stage with productions safely created within the guidelines that we would be proud to share in any year. We want to allow you to be transported and forget about the outside world for a while. This is how we did it...
With ever-changing guidance and restrictions, and the additional concerns of new variants of COVID-19 emerging, Garsington has had to overcome its greatest ever logistical and artistic challenges to bring four productions safely to fruition.
The one thing we knew was that we wanted to make it as ambitious and exciting a festival as we could manage whilst keeping our artists, backstage staff and audience safe. The aim was to showcase our exceptional performers, creative teams, technicians and orchestras - especially considering our audience has missed out on so much since 2020. But how were we going to achieve it?
We started by taking advantage of the closed period of 2020 to invest time and money to increase the size of our orchestra pit, enabling us to fit as many players as possible in a socially distanced manner. We are fortunate to have an unusually wide stage and pit, so even with restrictions we are now able to accommodate 45 players. When we discovered the brilliant re-orchestration of Der Rosenkavalier by Eberhard Kloke, we realised that we could open our season with the ambitious repertoire we had originally planned – after all, the creative team and world class cast had been booked for years.
Next we had to work out how to rehearse within Government guidelines. We realised that, though fraught with complexity, creative thinking and careful application would enable us to reduce the risk of infection whilst still creating the ‘rehearsal room magic’ that is essential to the success of every great opera production. In fact we have found that the strict parameters placed on the process have in some ways invigorated the creative process.
Rachel Laird, dancer:
'What has impressed me with working with Garsington is the dedication and effort gone into making the rehearsal process and transition to stage as safe as possible all the while making it still feel like an enjoyable and fruitful creative environment. I feel endlessly lucky to finally be back on stage and working as a dancer again after a rocky year for theatre and so grateful to the efforts gone into making this season happen.'
In line with Government guidelines, we have established protocols within a strict COVID-19 testing regime. By distancing in well-ventilated rehearsal spaces, limiting the number of personnel in rehearsal rooms, close monitoring by a designated member of stage management, using perspex screens between performers and creative teams wherever possible and a heightened cleaning and sanitising schedule we have enabled something wonderful.
But we have been creative too. The following performance-specific guidelines were developed to allow us the fullest possible artistic scope within Government guidelines.
People can be between 1m-2m as long as it’s for less than 15 minutes over 1 working day (carefully noted for each individual).
Two people can be closer than 1m as long as it’s for less than 1 minute over 1 working day and as long as they are not face to face.
A number of Fixed Teams were established amongst dancers and chorus. A Fixed Team is a small group of performers who bubble onstage, and can therefore be within close contact of each other throughout the performance.
Lina Johansson, choreographer, explains how she adapted to work within these guidelines:
'Garsington Opera asked if I could recreate some of the more physical choreography from our 2016 Eugene Onegin production. Once I got the carefully-crafted COVID protocol I was able to break down the challenge into detailed puzzle bits. I pored over photos and videos from the previous productions. What could we create with Fixed Team pairs; what could we pull apart to create more distance; exactly how long was each point of contact (in seconds!)?
I had to rethink how to teach the acrobatic lifts to the singers, breaking the technique down bit by bit, spending more time on strengthening exercises and individual technique before approaching the actual lifts themselves, to economize the precious proximity time. I think this is actually a positive outcome - by the time we came to the lift both lifters and lifted were more confident in what they were doing.'
Mimi Kroll, Company Manager:
'Coming back to work is a challenge, whether you're a singer, a director, a member of music or technical staff, or part of the Company Management team. We're all adapting to the new normal, working hard to create in the face of numerous restrictions. Is it challenging? Yes, no doubt. But this is perhaps the most rewarding season I've ever worked on. We went into this pandemic together, and now we're pulling together to deliver a season. The camaraderie, particularly at Garsington, is very special.
As Company Manager, the safety and happiness of our company is my priority. We have worked tirelessly to create and maintain protocols that ensure all staff can carry out their work in safety, and with confidence.'
The end result, we hope, is a season of operatic performance at Garsington which will transport you from the world outside whilst quietly and efficiently keeping everyone safe, enabling our artists to deliver their best work for the first time in 18 months. We can’t wait to share it with you.
Photos: Julian Guidera