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ImageCredit…Krista Schlueter for The New York Times
On Saturday evening, if all goes as planned, the Metropolitan Opera will celebrate a milestone: reaching a long-planned midwinter break without having had to cancel a single performance, even as the pandemic created havoc backstage.
As the Omicron variant spread through the city in December and January, the virus upended the Met’s operations, with at least 400 singers, orchestra players, stagehands, costume designers, dancers, actors and other employees testing positive, according to a snapshot of cases provided by the Met on Friday.
But there are encouraging signs that at the opera house, as in the city, the recent surge has peaked and cases are falling dramatically again.
During the first week of January, as cases were reaching new heights in New York, more than 100 employees at the Met tested positive, including six solo singers and five members of the children’s chorus. By last week, the total number of positive cases among the Met’s large roster of employees had fallen to 22, about the same number as in early December, and there have been eight positive tests so far this week.
Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, said that during the worst days of Omicron, he worried the company might run out of personnel and be unable to perform. But the Met’s strict safety protocols, which included vaccine and mask mandates and regular testing, provided some assurance, he said, that nobody would become seriously ill.
“I knew that if we could just keep bringing in reserves, as well as getting people back to work as soon as they had cleared the quarantine period, we would be able to keep performing,” Gelb said. “Our struggle to keep the Met up and running in the face of Covid became a unifying force for the entire company as we battled a common enemy.”
The Met never missed a downbeat or a curtain, even as the Omicron variant wreaked havoc across the performing arts — resulting in the cancellation of scores of Broadway shows, concerts and dance performances.
The virus has taken a toll on attendance this winter, across the performing arts.
On Broadway, just 62 percent of seats were occupied the week that ended Jan. 9; in the comparable week in the January before the pandemic, 94 percent of seats were filled. Last week, after many of the weakest shows closed and others reduced their prices, 75 percent of all seats were filled but overall box office grosses were down.
At the Met, where 77 percent of seats were filled the week of Dec. 18, attendance dropped precipitously as the virus surged, bottoming out at 44 percent in mid-January, before beginning to rise again.
Now the Met, the largest performing arts organization in the United States, will have some time to ride out the next phase of the pandemic: It is about to take a long-scheduled break from performing for much of February, before returning on Feb. 28 with a starry new production of Verdi’s “Don Carlos.”
Credit…Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times
The company decided back in 2018 to institute a midseason break, long before the coronavirus emerged. The idea was to stop performing in the middle of winter, when sales are generally weakest, and to add more performances in the late spring, moving the end of the opera season to early June from May. The first midwinter break was supposed to take effect in the 2020-21 season — the season lost to the coronavirus.
Now — as the recent surge in cases has left performing arts organizations facing alarmingly low attendance — the Met will have nearly a month off.
“It’s serendipitous,” Gelb said about the break, adding that while there would be only one performance in February, offstage rehearsals would continue.
Donations have risen during the crisis. The Met’s patrons have provided $110 million in emergency gifts since last summer — more than half within the last two months alone.
Coronavirus cases began to climb at the Met in mid-December. The company responded by toughening its safety protocols, requiring employees to take P.C.R. tests three times a week and mandating that singers wear face masks even at dress rehearsals.
The spike in cases forced a series of last-minute substitutions, including replacing star singers in productions of “Rigoletto” and “Cinderella.” The Met’s employees said the vast network of performers has been an asset, but the rush to get them ready before showtime can be stressful.
“It’s kind of been an Olympics,” said Gillian Smith, director of actors and dancers at the Met. “Knowing that we don’t want to cancel and knowing that people are coming and want to see a show helps build the kind of spirit that we need to keep going.”
Gelb said he was hopeful about the rest of the season, and that cases would continue to fall and that audiences would feel comfortable returning again. As cases drop across the region, he expects older audience members to return in larger numbers, alongside younger fans who turned out in the fall and winter.
“I feel very optimistic about the second half of the season,” he said, “not only in keeping our pristine record of performances going forward, but also having the house full of people.”