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Dudamel conducts for an audience of 1,000 indoors. What reopening looks like in Spain

One of eight unmasked singers in "Otello" at Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, surrounded by masked chorus members
Opening night of “Otello” at Gran Teatre del Liceu featured eight singers performing unmasked, joined by dozens of chorus singers onstage, 50 musicians in the orchestra pit and an audience of about 1,000.
(David Ruano/Gran Teatre del Liceu)

Try to imagine Gustavo Dudamel conducting 50 musicians huddled in an orchestra pit, with 75 singers packed on the stage above and 1,000 people on hand just to watch, all indoors.

That’s exactly what maestro Dudamel pulled off on Saturday night — albeit 6,000 miles away from a still-closed Walt Disney Concert Hall — when the Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor premiered a starry Bavarian State Opera production of Verdi’s “Otello” at the Gran Teatre del Liceu.

It was all perfectly legal and earned a healthy round of applause (and, to be fair, a few boos). Dudamel made his Spanish opera debut in an uncut, fully-staged production that many hoped would mark the beginning of the post-COVID-19 era.

The sold-out audience was told to arrive at staggered times to avoid lines and to sanitize hands after scanning tickets. Temperatures were taken discreetly at the entrance. No printed programs were available. Food and drink were not for sale. Every other seat in the 2,292-capacity house was roped off. Black tie was not required, but masks were. Most patrons wore N95s or blue surgical face coverings, and a fabulous few donned bejazzled sequined masks. Besides that, it felt like just another night at the opera.

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An "Otello" banner hangs outside the ornate windows and columns of a theater.
Banners tout Gustavo Dudamel as conductor of “Otello” outside the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, where indoor performances are moving forward.
(James C. Taylor)

Posters outside the theater feature a photo of Dudamel with the opera title, “Otello,” which drives home how much of a star he is here in Spain. Unable to perform for in-person audiences in California, he’s been at a number of podiums in Barcelona of late, conducting Beethoven’s 9th in September and two concert performances of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” in October.

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Despite what the posters might indicate, the title role of “Otello” is usually the main draw of the opera. It’s a taxing role in the repertoire and usually staged with the boldest tenor voices. On Saturday night, Dudamel conducted a leading interpreter of the part: American tenor Gregory Kunde. Kunde won the 2016 male singer of the year award at the International Opera Awards, and in 2017 he shared the role with Jonas Kaufmann in an acclaimed London “Otello.”

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Kunde was paired with a veteran Desdemona in soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, who performed with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony in a memorable concert “Otello” back in 2011. And the villainous Iago on opening night was sung by Spaniard Carlos Alvarez — arguably the world’s leading Verdi baritone today.

The minimalist staging by Amelie Niermeyer is interesting for those who know the opera, as it makes Desdemona more present throughout the piece.

Performers in flowered gowns and strumming stringed instruments gather on a stage with a bed.
For “Otello,” dozens of singers crowded onto an indoor stage before an audience of 1,000 in a country where only about 5% of the population is fully vaccinated.
(David Ruano / Gran Teatre del Liceu)

It may not be an “Otello” for the ages, but for most of the audience at this point in the pandemic, it doesn’t need to be. This is not Zoom opera or streaming opera; this is not drive-in opera heard through a car radio. No, this is the real thing: full-throttle, trumpets-blaring, humans-hugging-kissing-and-wailing opera that must be felt by being in the same close space — and breathing the same air — as the hundreds of artists working in tandem at the highest levels.

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While L.A. County concert halls sit empty — with about 30% of the state’s residents at least partially vaccinated and about 15% fully vaccinated — the Liceu performances are moving forward even though only about 5% of Spain’s adults are fully vaccinated. Catalans watched the opera Saturday with eight international singers performing without masks, 70 choristers singing with masks, dozens of musicians (including horns and woodwinds who could not be masked) plus dozens of others working backstage. Dudamel conducted behind five plexiglass screens.

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Spain is an outlier here in Europe. Concert halls in Vienna are shuttered, as are theaters in London. Will the openness in Barcelona backfire? The music world is watching — from a distance.

Spanish health ministers have made statements to the European press about “culture being a basic human right,” and local governments and arts companies have negotiated protocols (no coat check, limited elevator and restroom access) that encourage artists to work and audiences to watch. The Liceu launched the first concert after the shutdown last year with its orchestra playing to a full house of potted plants instead of humans. (The fauna was donated to healthcare workers.) This might have seemed like a stunt, but it kept musicians employed and got the public’s attention, signaling that the show must go on.

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Southern California companies such as Long Beach Opera and Pacific Opera Project have announced outdoor performances in coming months. Although bigger companies like the L.A. Phil and L.A. Opera are exploring ways to make summer shows happen, for now the earliest anyone expects indoor main-stage performances to return is the fall, with early 2022 seeming a better bet. “Il Trovatore” is scheduled, at least for now, to open at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Sept. 18. The tenor in the title role: Gregory Kunde. If the curtain does rise here in L.A. this fall, at least our troubadour — thanks to Barcelona — will not be rusty.

Dudamel conducts from behind plexiglass.
Gustavo Dudamel rehearses for “Otello” at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, where 11 performances are scheduled through April 14.
(David Ruano / Gran Teatre del Liceu)


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