“You couldn’t fit even the musicians into the arena [under social distancing measures],” let alone an audience big enough to pay the bills, says Lyn Williams, founder and artistic director of Gondwana Choirs.
If it is not confirmed by the end of June, the choirs will not have time to learn the music.
And even if the rules have relaxed by October – as performing arts organisations are pleading with the government to allow – choir directors say their choirs are under existential threat from the pandemic.
Andrew Wailes, director of four choirs in Melbourne including the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic, believes dozens of fine Australian choirs, including some of the most important, may not have the singers or the money even to hire rehearsal halls when they resume, he says.
“There are big choirs, small choirs, professional choirs, community choirs, elderly choirs and young choirs. In my case, most have just gone into hibernation to try to survive.” Some will not emerge, he says.
Wailes sees a “blatant lack of interest” in the arts in federal government and rues the fact choirs don’t have a voice at the highest levels of politics and media.
“If this had happened in New York in the 1960s, Leonard Bernstein would have been there as leader of the Philharmonic, standing front and centre on television telling everyone it was important they got funding,” he says.
Last week, prime minister Scott Morrison announced new rules for outdoor arenas, expected to come into effect in July, where small to medium stadiums can seat 25 per cent of their capacity. But Margaret Court Arena seats 7500, so if the Mahler were staged as planned under this rule the performers would outnumber the audience.
The challenge, still, is to protect audiences and performers while putting on a commercially viable show.
Choirs have earned a reputation as a particular health risk in a pandemic, through three bad episodes in March in the United States, Germany and Holland, where large numbers of choir members became infected after singing together, and several died.
Several directors from the choirs contributing to the Mahler concert expressed strong doubts to The Age that it could possibly go ahead this year – Williams called it “impossible”.
MSO managing director Sophie Galaise declined to comment and refused permission to speak to the orchestra’s choirmaster.
Wailes contests the theory that singing is a particular health risk, citing specialists in Germany and England who suggested the problem may have been lack of social distancing rather than the singing itself. He notes there have been no cases of coronavirus transmission in Australian choirs.
Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini, whose 40-strong full-time chorus is the only professional choir in Australia, points out that Qantas is about to resume full flights. “If people want to fly from Melbourne to Brisbane for (OA’s Wagner) Ring in November, does that mean they can sit next to each other on the plane but not in the theatre?”
He calls the restrictions on music “preposterous”.
“We can do all sorts of things to ensure greatest audience protection. We can take temperature checks before people come into the theatre, they can sanitise, wear a mask.”
It would be an enormous tragedy for Australia to lose choirs, he says. “It’s the fundamental of music-making in our history. People have always got together to sing. And the choirs support the symphony orchestras. If you lose that you lose the foundation and the building will fall down.”
Williams, whose Gondwana Choirs involves about 1000 singers a year, says choirs face an enormous hurdle to recover. She feels particularly for boys who entered the pandemic as trebles and will emerge as tenors, baritones or basses. “A lot of our boys’ identities are completely tied up with their voices.”
Williams says Gondwana will adhere to pandemic regulations, “but singing has to prevail. I can’t see that something so incredibly beneficial in so many ways can be held down for too long”.
Barney Zwartz, a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, was religion editor of The Age from 2002 to 2013.