'To credibly stage a marriage with a distance of one and a half metres between the bride and groom? I don't know how we did it, but we did!' In the middle of the second lockdown, the young Chinese soprano Ying Fang makes her DNO debut as Susanna in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. An experience that in no way resembles 'business as usual'.
Rehearsing with a sword of Damocles above your head. Not knowing if your hard work will result in anything. That is Le nozze di Figaro in the year 2020.
The rehearsals are marked by regular press conference-related stress. With the announcement of the partial lockdown in mid-October, the plug was pulled on the premiere and the first performances of the opera. The rehearsals continued. It was decided to record and stream the performance, and the hope was that the final performances of the series would go through. Those hopes too, soon turned out to be in vain. The only thing left for the singers and the artistic team was to rehearse for a streaming production.
“IT IS 2020. ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN...’’
And on 3 November even that is uncertain. In the empty corridors of the Dutch National Opera & Ballet the atmosphere is restless. There will be another press conference that evening. The theatres will have to close for a fortnight, that much is clear. But what that means for Le nozze remains unknown until the last moment. Are rehearsals still allowed to continue? Can the production still be filmed? Or this is really the end of everything and should everyone just go home?
Soprano Ying Fang is remarkably calm and cheerful under the circumstances. "Of course I would love to be able to finish this process, but it is still 2020. Anything can happen...and let's face it: health is the most important thing in the end".
AN EVENTFUL YEAR
Ying Fang's attitude was not as relaxed at the beginning of 2020. She was living in New York when a mysterious new virus appeared in her homeland China. "I was very worried about my family. My father goes to the hospital every two weeks to fill a prescription for my grandfather. I was scared to death that he would be infected there, in the ground zero of the pandemic".
So she went looking for as much protective gear as possible to send home to her family. "Even in New York in January of this year, supplies were extremely limited, but in the end I managed to get my hands on mouth masks, rubber gloves, goggles and a full-body cover-up and sent them home. When my father came to collect the medicine for my grandfather, they had a good laugh at the hospital. He was a bit overdressed. He had more protective equipment than the hospital staff".
In New York, meanwhile, Ying Fang was preparing for an important role debut as Sophie in Massenet's Werther with The Metropolitan Opera, as part of a star-filled cast led by chief conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. An important moment for a young singer at the cusp of an international career. "Unfortunately we were overtaken by the pandemic and had to cancel just before the final dress rehearsal. Ying's agenda for the rest of the year also quickly ran empty - a Zauberflöte at Houston Grand Opera was cancelled, a Nozze at L.A. Opera followed, as well as a performance at the Swiss Verbier Festival in the summer.
‘‘I locked myself in my flat for a few months’’
The first lockdown in the United States hit her hard. "New York is so densely populated that I didn't dare go out at all. I locked myself in my flat for a few months. I had everything I needed delivered to my home. It took a very long time, and also some persuasion from friends, before I even dared to go out for a walk in the park".
Ideally, she would have flown home to China as soon as possible to spend the lockdown with her family. "But for a long time there were hardly any flights and ticket prices were through the roof. After a long search I finally succeeded to find a flight eventually, and so I was able to return to China in the summer. When I arrived in China, I had to go straight to a quarantine hotel. There, a meal was left at the door a few times a day". She smiles. "I had been living like a hermit in New York for months, so those two weeks were not really a problem".
Once out of quarantine she was allowed to go home to her family. "That was almost surreal, because suddenly everything was possible again. Hugging my family, going to restaurants and cafés, meeting up with friends, days out. It was very carefree and nice."
BACK TO A DISASTER AREA
Contrary to her expectations, Le nozze di Figaro in Amsterdam was not cancelled. "It felt a bit double to me and my family. I had only just managed to get out of a corona-plagued region, and it felt as if I now had to travel to another crisis area.
"But I really wanted to. I love my job very much and my debut with Dutch National Opera is very important to me. It is an opera house to which I will return more often in the coming seasons. And Susanna is just a fantastic role."
Ying was sceptical when she heard that the opera would be presented in a corona-proof way. "To begin with, the opera revolves around the marriage of Figaro and Susanna. How do you stage such a thing credibly when the bride and groom have to stay at a distance from each other? And that was just the tip of the iceberg. There are just so many hugs, kisses and slaps in the opera".
PUZZLING WITH MOZART
Laying the puzzle was up to the artistic team. Well before the start of the rehearsal period, conductor Riccardo Minasi, director David Bösch and revival director Maria Lamont had set to work on a coronaproof Nozze together with Meisje Barbara Hummel, Klaus Bertisch and Ernst Munneke . The opera had to be reduced in length considerably, from about three and a half hours to two and a half hours - after all, an interval was impossible to include safely within the coronaproof protocols. But the challenge wasn't just a musical one. The existing 2016 production by David Bösch also had to be reworked very thoroughly.
In the rehearsal room, 'corona-sticks' helped to monitor whether the staging complied with distancing protocols (singers have to be 1.5 metres apart on stage, and 2.5 metres apart while singing). Props were also not allowed to be touched by different performers. With the help of gloves, concealed disinfectant and clear instructions on who touches which prop where, solutions were found for logistical and artistic bottlenecks.
Ying Fang: "I am deeply impressed by the sheer inventiveness with which this production came about. And the musical cuts have also been done with integrity. We don't just bring a collection of Figaro 'highlights', but rather a story that is as complete as possible. We have all seen a darling killed here and there. But in the end, the heart of the opera remains intact and the end result is something we all support and have come to be very fond of".
Ying Fang would describe the role of Susanna as a marathon. "I am on stage from beginning to end, for two and a half hours, almost non-stop. And I also have to run back and forth a lot, and climb things. I've sung Susanna a couple of times now, and I always lose weight when I sing this role. Purely because this role requires me to run around so much. It really is quite a workout!
She gladly goes the extra mile, though. "I love the character. Susanna is smart, brave and strong. She stands up for herself. And that's very special when you look at the time this piece was written. She refuses to let herself be victimised. The opera may be named after Figaro, but Susanna is really the driving force behind what happens. She is the spider in the web that connects all the characters and she thinks on her feet".
‘‘Nozze is a combination of musical perfection and danger’’
Also musically it is an ideal role for the soprano: "Mozart fits me vocally like a glove. And I simply love the way he has written his music. It's very clear and pure, but there's always a hint of something going on beneath the surface. I would call Nozze a combination of musical perfection and danger".
As she finishes her sentence, opera director Sophie de Lint comes to say hello, with future chief conductor Lorenzo Viotti in her wake. "Lorenzo, meet Ying, you two will be working together in the future on Strauss. The two greet each other enthusiastically from a distance. At the end of the tunnel, there's a light shining: Ying Fang's online DNO debut is just the beginning of a longer journey with the company.
Ying Fang stars as Susanna in our production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, which will be available on our online platform from 29 November 2020.
Pictures: Marco Borggreve