The soprano Renée Fleming strolled on stage in a shimmering long-sleeved dress, sat down on a chair and began to sing.
For a renowned performer who has spent decades in her career, it may have been an uneventful Wednesday night at the Shed, the sprawling performance space in Hudson Yards. But after 13 months in a pandemic, a sea of faces was a novel sight for the opera star and the trio that accompanied them.
“Wow, applause!” she noticed after finishing the meditative opening number. “Very exciting.”
Exciting indeed – and not an easy task.
After the Shed and other flexible New York event spaces campaigned to let the audience in, it was granted permission to open its doors for a live event on April 2nd after 386 days of downtime. Fleming’s April 21st Limited Audience Show was the fourth in a row sponsored by NY PopsUp, a public-private arts revitalization program.
While the 85-minute show – a mix of classical, jazz, and popular music – went smoothly, it demonstrated that hosting indoor events in New York will still be time-consuming, unpredictable, and expensive at this stage of the pandemic.
Dozens of hours of careful planning were required to get Fleming and the musicians on stage. Hundreds of dollars in safety equipment like plastic face shields and hand sanitizer; and nearly $ 2,500 for coronavirus testing. All of this for drastically reduced ticket revenues.
And while she may have been the headliner, the show took in a large number of characters behind the scenes, some of whom hadn’t worked the building on a regular basis in months.
Monday: Two days until the show
During normal times, a morning pre-production meeting might discuss last-minute program changes or the status of ticket sales.
On April 19, it was where and when Renée Fleming would receive her rapid Covid tests.
She would arrive for a rehearsal at 1:30 p.m. the next day and go upstairs to the smaller Kenneth C. Griffin Theater, where her dressing room was. There she would meet a medical technician who would give a nasal swab.
There would be no servers bringing the talent tea, coffee, or food, as the edict of the Ministry of Health requires.
“We do what we need to,” said Laura Aswad, the shed’s producer, noting that Fleming, who starred in one piece during the shed’s opening season, wasn’t going to go completely unsupervised: it would be bottled water, tea bags, and a kettle in her locker room.
Alex Poots, the manager of the shed, had a big announcement to share with the staff. The venue had not received government permission to enlarge the audience. In the days leading up to the concert, the shed asked to double the capacity from 150 to 300, which would still be a fraction of the 1,200 or so people that McCourt, its largest performance space, can hold.
But the state had essentially told them: not so soon.
The concert was sold out in two hours. Audience members who had secured tickets had already received the first of four emails explaining the coronavirus protocols they had to follow.
Gone was the opportunity to rush to a concert after work and drop into your seat when the curtain opened. Before entering the shed, the concert-goers had to tick one of the three boxes: proof of complete vaccination; detect a negative PCR test performed within 72 hours of the event; or have performed a less reliable rapid antigen test within six hours of Showtime.
This was such a jumble of rules and data that printed cheat sheets were provided to the staff outside the house for the day of the show.
Tuesday: One day until the show
Guitarist Bill Frisell was surrounded by piles of music – some Handel, some Stephen Foster – laid out on the dining table and living room floor of his Brooklyn home. He wrote down his voices in pencil, referring to a list of songs Fleming had sent him, bassist Christian McBride and pianist Dan Tepfer.
Pandemic restrictions only meant a personal rehearsal before the day of the show, and Frisell was in study mode. He had previously played alongside Fleming – they had recorded an album in 2005 – but never alongside Tepfer or McBride.
“It adds a certain amount of stress to the event, no question about it,” Fleming said. “We still have a lot to find out how to arrange everything.”
While Frisell was reviewing the scores for Cole Porter’s “Down in the Depths”, Fleming was on East 57th Street visiting her long-time hairdresser Michael Stinchcomb at the Vartali Salon.
An avid fan since the 1990s, Stinchcomb first met Fleming behind the scenes at Carnegie Hall. He’s been doing her hair for more than two decades and often travels the world when she performs.
But Fleming moved from New York to Virginia last winter, and the pandemic had prevented her from visiting Stinchcomb until the day before her appearance in the shed.
“She was so happy to come in,” said Stinchcomb. “She is a woman who likes to look good.”
Later that afternoon, Fleming arrived at the shed for a three-hour rehearsal, where she and the musicians discussed harmonies, tempos, and spots for improvised solos.
“A full rehearsal the day before a show?” McBride said. “That’s a lot in the jazz world.”
Wednesday: 11 hours until the show
José Rivera pointed to the space between two groups of seats. “It’s 6-foot4 from here to here,” he announced, bending down to check his yellow tape measure. “From here to here is 6-foot 1.”
That made the grade: According to state rules, the distance between the spectators had to be over two meters.
He and another member of the facility, Steven Quinones, had arranged the chairs for about two hours to make sure the setup matched a detailed paper diagram.
“And you see, this is the big hallway people walk through, so it’s 9 feet, 5 inches,” Rivera continued, raising his voice to be heard over the purr of a third colleague who was on an industrial Floor scrubber zoomed across the room.
Five floors up, Josh Phagoo, an operations engineer, checked one of the shed’s key technologies for Covid security: the HVAC system. Massive air handling equipment and chillers in the building’s engine room kept buzzing as Phagoo made sure the machines, keeping the air at around 70 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity at 50 percent, were functional.
On the stage itself, the first piano notes of the day vibrated through the air up to the McCourt’s 30-meter-high ceiling.
Stephen Eriksson had arrived at 11 a.m. to tune the shiny Steinway grand piano. While he said his business went away in the first four months of the pandemic, he’s now busier than ever.
For almost 30 minutes he used a tuning key to make sure the piano was ready for concert. After that he played a bit of Debussy and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”.
“It’s a bit of pure enjoyment,” he said.
Wednesday: three hours to the show
Within 15 minutes of arriving at the shed, Fleming, who was scheduled for her second vaccine in New York the morning after the show, received the rapid Covid test in her locker room. Negative.
She then rehearsed on stage with the musicians, whose instruments were more than three feet apart, while an audio crew member in a mask and face mask scurried around her to make sure everything was working properly.
The crew of six who worked on the show was a bit smaller than usual, according to Pope Jackson, the shed’s production manager. Everywhere they went they brought a so-called “covid cart” which contained a supply of masks, gloves, toiletries and brown paper bags that the musicians’ union needs so that players have a clean place to place their masks while they are playing carry out.
Downstairs, eight security officers had their nostrils wiped to make sure they tested negative.
Fleming and the musicians had given virtual and outdoor concerts during the pandemic, but security guards were full of people whose careers had been even more excited.
Allen Pestana, 21, has been unemployed for more than a year after being fired from industrial security at Yankee Stadium. Fifty-three-year-old Duwanna Alford watched her hours in a church in Morningside Heights be shortened. Richard Reid, 33, had worked as a security officer at a Manhattan field hospital in April 2020, trying to forget about his health fears and focus on the hazard payment he was receiving.
This was the moment before a concert when the theater lived full of preparation and nerves – a hustle and bustle that was absent in the city in the first year of the pandemic.
“It’s like doing the electric slide, the moon walk, and the bachata all at the same time,” Jackson said of the minutes before the show. “But when the lights come on, everything disappears.”
The staff in front of the house only had 20 minutes to check the IDs of the spectators and the Covid-related documents. take their temperatures; and show them to their places.
Icy gusts of wind right outside the doors didn’t make things any easier.
By 8:05 p.m. 150 people had settled in their precisely placed seats and were able to take a photo of the QR code on the armrests of the chairs in order to see the concert program.
Between the performances of the jazz classic “Donna Lee” and “Touch the Hand of Love”, which Fleming once recorded with Yo-Yo Ma, the artists on stage talked about what they had done with their lives in the past 13 months .
“I wish this pandemic was over,” said McBride.
Tepfer said he improved a technological tool that made it easier for musicians to play together over the internet – a tool he and Fleming had practiced together virtually.
Frisell hadn’t performed for an indoor audience since the beginning of the pandemic. “It’s such a blessing,” he said.
The show ended with a standing ovation, and then the musicians played an encore: “Hard Times” by Stephen Foster, which Fleming described as a song that is more likely to resonate in times of crisis.
“Hard times,” she sang, “don’t come back.”