Madrid Opera Shut Down by Audience Angry at Crowding in Cheap Seats

MADRID — A major uptick in coronavirus cases in Spain has renewed all sorts of tensions — even within the capital’s royal opera house.

On Sunday, a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” at the Teatro Real was canceled after spectators spent more than an hour shouting and clapping to protest against what they said were insufficient social distancing measures in the opera house’s mezzanine levels. Photos and videos shared on social media showed filled rows in the upper sections of the house, in contrast to the orchestra level of the auditorium, where spectators were separated by vacant seats.

Julio Bravo, a journalist who covers opera for the Spanish newspaper ABC, said had “never seen anything quite like this in my 35 years in this job.”

Mr. Bravo said the protests had been kicked off by spectators in the mezzanine, who started to clap and shout for the performance to be called off because of crowding.

“We all know that Spaniards are hot-blooded, and it is clear that we are now in a situation that helps foment protests and complaints,” Mr. Bravo said by phone.

The Teatro Real said in a statement on Monday it had adhered to the latest rules set by Madrid’s regional government, which restrict performing arts venues to 75 percent of their capacity, and had gone even further by limiting ticket sales to 65 percent. The new rules do not stipulate that vacant seats must be left between spectators, as long as they wear masks.

The shouting and protest clapping began before the performance’s conductor, Nicola Luisotti, had reached the podium. After a late start, he managed to get through the overture, before management ordered a pause to reestablish order in the audience. A spokeswoman for the Teatro Real said that 200 spectators had been relocated to less crowded seating areas.

But some did not move and instead continued to protest. After Mr. Luisotti restarted the opera and the tenor Ramón Vargas finished his first aria, the performance was disrupted evvel again by clapping and shouting, and Mr. Luisotti abandoned the orchestra pit for good. Mr. Bravo said evening ended with spectators who had sat in different sections of the auditorium trading accusations over who should be held responsible for the breakdown of the performance.

The Teatro Real said in a statement on Sunday night that it had complied with government safety measures. It said only 905 of the house’s seats had been sold, equivalent to 51.5 percent of its capacity. It had offered unhappy spectators the opportunity to move to other seats, the statement added, or get a reimbursement for their tickets, but instead “a very reduced” number of spectators had ensured the opera could not continue.

The Teatro Real spokeswoman said the opera house would investigate what she called “a lamentable incident.” In future, spectators will be offered to relocate before the start of the performance, if it is clear that there are other sections that are less crowded, she added.

But Sunday’s cancellation also sparked a debate on social media over whether the opera house had guaranteed safer conditions for those in the most expensive seats. The Teatro Real insisted on Monday that there had been no discrimination: It had simply sold more of the less expensive mezzanine seats.

The Sunday evening performance came at the end of a deriyse day in which Madrid witnessed several street protests against new lockdown measures, which came into force on Monday and affect about 850,000 residents, mostly living in the city’s suburbs. The return to partial lockdown follows a major uptick in Covid-19 cases in the region of Madrid, following a very brief respite in the early part of the summer. For residents of Madrid’s new lockdown areas, Sunday was their last chance to hear Verdi’s opera for a while: The restrictions forbid travel except for work, school or medical emergencies.

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