English National Opera is planning a socially distanced season of "stripped-back" productions, with every other row empty and audiences spaced with a two-seat gap between them.
Chief executive Stuart Murphy said reducing social distancing to 1-metre meant the venue could operate at about 48% capacity, which he said was workable with smaller productions on stage.
Opera-goers will be asked to wear masks and gloves for the duration of their visit to the London Coliseum and will arrive at staggered times through an increased number of entrances, Murphy said.
He detailed the company’s plans for a socially distanced opera festival later this year, for which the number of singers and musicians will be cut down and sets stripped back, both to aid safe working and cut costs.
The London Coliseum is due to host an already postponed production of Hairspray in September, which Murphy acknowledged may need to be pushed back again.
He told The Stage: "If we have to move that, we have a plan B, which is a pretty carefully thought out socially distanced opera season.
"We’ll use our emergency exits and entrances, so we’ll have three or four. We’ll have staggered arrival times, we’ll insist people wear masks and gloves, we’ll have front of house behind visors and gloves... and we’ll have socially distanced seating, probably with every other row empty and two seats spare [between each person]."
ENO’s costume and props department have spent lockdown making scrubs and visors for NHS workers, and will pivot to making personal protective equipment for the Coliseum’s staff.
Few organisations of ENO’s size have said they would consider restarting performances before the end of social distancing, with many theatres branding the idea financially and practically impossible.
However, Murphy said he believes that with scaled-down productions it can happen, and could also offer a more informal experience for audiences.
The current 2-metre rules would only allow the London Coliseum to fill a maximum of 20% of its 2,359-seat auditorium, however when social distancing is reduced to 1 metre in July, he said it could achieve 48% capacity.
He believes the reduced capacities would be financially viable by adapting what is presented.
"We can flex what we put on stage. When you look at the financial equation, if you’re still performing the same grand opera with the same set, the same props, the same sized chorus and the same sized orchestra, obviously you’re going to need mass attendance to make it happen. As you scale down what you see on stage, that makes it doable.
"In theatre, you can’t scale down Hamilton, but for other art forms you can absolutely scale down. You’d have two or three performers and a much smaller chamber orchestra. You can do it. It’s very stripped back, but at least it’s something, and it’s beholden on us to experiment and find ways [to open]," he said.
Backstage staff will work under a colour-coded system, allowing them access to certain areas only, and with flowcharts managing people’s movements around the building.
Murphy said there could also be a "helpful byproduct" of the plans, which would encourage audiences who would not otherwise experience opera.
"If we do socially distanced performances, people will be able to get up when they want to go to the bathroom, or go to the bar, or if they’re feeling uncomfortable or stressed, just get up. It straightaway de-clenches the medium," he said.
ENO has already announced plans to restart performances outside the Coliseum, and will launch a drive-in opera programme at Alexandra Palace in September.
Murphy said he hopes to repeat the initiative outside London following its first iteration, and is also considering streaming performances to drive-in cinemas across the country.
Murphy said the crisis had brought the arts’ importance to society "into sharp focus", particularly around outreach, and said he hoped government would recognise it with financial support.
He said that without this support, ENO would be forced to consider making redundancies later this year, with its reserves only lasting until October.