Florentine Opera faces unique challenges in next month’s return to stage

Photo: Florentine Opera

Last updated on March 16th, 2021 at 01:01 pm

The Florentine Opera will make its return to the stage with “La Vie En Rose” next month.

The return will be the first time in 13 months that the opera company has been on stage in front of an audience at the Marcus Performing Arts Center after the COVID-19 pandemic forced an early end to its 2020 season.

Performances of “La Vie En Rose” will begin April 9 in the Wilson Theater at Vogel Hall in the Marcus Performing Arts Center.

While in-person performing arts productions have been difficult to pull off during the pandemic, the opera art form presents particular challenges: Singers need to project widely without microphones, which produces droplets, and congregating in backstage areas and orchestra pits isn’t conducive to social distancing.

“Trying to figure out how we make sure we keep the audience safe from how far (singers’) breath extends, how we fit all the protocols for different unions for the musicians, for the stage hands, for the venue, for our singers – how do we put those all together and make sure we’re checking every box for every organization that we’re a part of? … Until all of those things could be accomplished and synched, we couldn’t do what we’re now looking at doing, which is coming back to the stage,” said Maggey Oplinger, general director and chief executive officer of the Florentine.

When audiences return, they will be seated with distance between groups, and the first five rows of seats will be unoccupied. Productions will be shortened to roughly an hour, and there won’t be intermissions, to mitigate congregating.

Oplinger said she recently was able to attend a ballet and was surprised by how normal the experience felt, despite being masked and socially distanced from other audience members.

“We talk a lot about how there’s going to be a new normal with COVID, I think this is the next iteration of that,” she said. “And the joy of returning to a theater and of watching the lights come off and seeing a performance begin, for me, took away all of the weirdness of being there in a mask and participating in a very different way than I’m used to.”

The organization developed a safety protocol plan over 50 pages long, and submitted its plan jointly to city health department with the Marcus Center. Oplinger noted the Florentine has a certified COVID-compliance production manager on staff, Lisa Schlenker, who has helped develop those policies.

The Florentine will also be the first group to perform in the Marcus Center’s newly renovated Uihlein Hall with its production of “Little Mahagonny,” beginning May 7. The first of a multi-phased renovation project at the downtown venue, Uihlein Hall has undergone a series of upgrades in recent months, including new seating with multiple aisles, enhanced ADA accommodations and improved technology.

“I know every audience member who’s used to that space can’t wait to have aisles, … I’m sure this is going to make everyone feel safer and I know it’s going to make them safer and I also think it’s going to make going to a performance so much easier and so much more enjoyable,” Oplinger said.

“Little Mahogonny” will be a fully produced mainstage Grand Opera with a small orchestra.

For artists, Oplinger said, performing for a live audience will be “a thrill.”

“Performing for a camera is just not the same, and we talk about a lot of feeding off of the audience energy, there truly is a back and forth,” she said. “That give and take, to get that back is going to be thrilling not only for our audiences but for our performers.”

Florentine performers were able to get a taste of that over the summer, when the company was able to put on several live, outdoor performances.

“It’s been a constant string of solving new business problems on a daily basis, and that’s tough to do, and yet every time we’ve accomplished one of them it’s been exciting,” Oplinger said “It’s like tiny little celebrations over fixing things that end up being almost unseen in the experience but had to be solved for us to move forward.”

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Lauren Anderson is an associate editor and covers health care, nonprofits and education for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism.

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