Brow Beat

The Pandemic Is Bringing Opera Lovers Together, at a Safe Distance

In more serene times, opera can be a little too much. Right now, it’s a relief.

Ramón Vargas and Angela Gheorghiu in Puccini's La Bohème.
Ramón Vargas and Angela Gheorghiu in Puccini’s La Bohème. Marty Sohl / Met Opera

The New York Metropolitan Opera’s website crashed Monday night as tens of thousands of people attempted to simultaneously stream George Bizet’s Carmen, the first in a series of operas the Met will make available online, free of charge, after closing its doors in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

On Friday, the Met, alongside a number of other institutions, announced it would be canceling all performances through March 31 in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus. In a gesture of generosity for its patrons and the public, the Met moved quickly to make some of its offerings available online, beginning with selections of filmed operas from its extensive Live in HD catalog. The next stream, a 2015 performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, is scheduled for Wednesday evening at 7:30 Eastern.

“We’d like to provide some grand opera solace to opera lovers in these extraordinarily difficult times,” said Met general manager Peter Gelb.

The Met is not the first organization to augment its online programming in response to the crisis. Earlier this week, Universal Studios announced it would make several of its upcoming wide release films including The Invisible Man and The Hunt available on demand as soon as this Friday.

While such offerings provide much-appreciated sources of entertainment and comfort for the millions of individuals and families currently isolated in their homes, tech experts have expressed concerns about whether internet network providers will be able to support the increase in demand. With more stringent self-isolation measures being put in place across the U.S., and therefore more people stuck at home, it’s likely that server crashes like Monday’s may become more common. But if nothing else, it shows how the desire to collectively experience live performance remains keen, even as we’re all shut up in our homes.

Upon finding the Met website unresponsive, many opera lovers expressed disappointment that they wouldn’t be able to see the show, mixed with delighted surprise at the abundance of interest. “Wow, we’ve actually crashed the Met’s website,” Ellen Clair Lamb tweeted. “That actually makes me happy. Who knew that many people wanted to watch opera?”

The Met apologized for the inconvenience on Twitter, citing “unprecedented traffic” and stating: “we are doing everything we can to increase capacity.” On Tuesday night, a redesigned system included a virtual queue or “waiting room,” which limited the number of viewers so as not to overburden the site. At 7:45 on Tuesday night, I was number 69,414 in line for Puccini’s La Bohème. The estimated wait time was 27 minutes.

Amid the ominous developments of recent days—as cities are placed on lockdown and the number of those infected continues to rise—the unexpected outpouring of support for opera feels both strange and heartening.

One reason for the spike in popularity may have to do with access. Opera is a notoriously rarefied art form, one that is often seen as synonymous with a certain kind of privilege. Under normal circumstances, tickets to a live show at the Met can run hundreds of dollars a seat, and even the Live in HD broadcasts streamed to movie theaters can cost $30 a ticket. For many, the Met’s free livestreams offer a rare opportunity to see world-class performances that would otherwise be inaccessible.

There is also the matter of time. Operas are long—often three to four hours including intermission—and such a time commitment can pose obstacles for those with demanding jobs or children at home. But with families cooped-up at home, they may be uncommonly ready, willing, and able to watch a four-hour musical.

It’s not entirely a surprise that, in this unprecedented and scary moment, people are drawn to opera. For most of us, the subjects of opera—stories of war, murder, seduction, and betrayal told through elaborate orchestral arrangements featuring men in capes and women in petticoats singing in impossible registers—feel distant from our everyday lives. Opera’s grandiose themes and full-throated emotional opulence are what make it appealing to some and exhausting (or cringe-worthy) to others. In less extreme moments, opera can feel like a little too much. But at this particular moment—as the economy collapses and countries across the world declare states of emergency—opera’s once-outsize emotionality feels suddenly a little more proportional, fitting for the intensity of these troubled times.

In the past few weeks, we have been given abundant cause for anxiety and fear. But we have also seen amazing examples of the resilience of the human spirit. We have heard quarantined Sicilians sing together from the balconies of their homes. We’ve seen children in Columbus, Ohio, serenading their elderly home-bound neighbors. Moments like these serve as reminders that, despite barriers and distances, the desire to sing aloud and to connect with one another remains strong.

As much as operas are stories of tragedy, they are also stories of survival, and the enduring human instinct for expression and connection. Stories like La Bohème offer a temporary escape from the harshness of our current reality and an opportunity for exaltation—a chance to release some of the pent-up emotion of this pent-up moment. They are also means of connection. When we all tune in at once, we are, for a moment, brought together in song despite our distance in space. Moments like these can help ease the difficulty of isolation, tethering us together even while we remain, for now, apart. So tune into the Met tonight, and be sure to get in line early.