Today’s announcement, that the organisers of the annual Proms concerts hope to put on a series of live performances at the Royal Albert Hall during the first two weeks of September this year, wouldn’t usually be headline news. After all, the Director of the Proms, David Pickard, and his team are used to putting on one if not two or three live concerts every single day of the week, for a period of eight weeks, every summer, and the series has run along those lines for the past 124 years.
Pandemics, however, have no respect for history or culture, or tradition, even one that is good for us. Thanks to COVID-19, our orchestras and choirs, our concert halls and opera houses are unable to function and because of the way in which live music (and theatre) is performed, with musicians and audience cheek by jowl with each other in a confined space, in complete contravention of the current ‘social distancing’ guidelines, concerts and operas in particular are likely to be among the last events to be re-established when the lockdown is fully lifted.
It is a state of affairs that will almost certainly, as HRH The Prince of Wales warned in his Classic FM radio programme at the start of this week, mean the demise of more than one or two musical and theatrical operations. Ticket revenues are the lifeblood of almost everyone involved in the performance world but if social distancing is to remain a permanent feature of our lives for some time to come, as seems likely, that revenue is nought.
What is to be done? We need musicians and actors to be able to continue to ply their trade; their skills and the performances they create are essential to our pleasure and wellbeing in countless (and scientifically proven) ways. But how will we still be able to watch and listen to them live, within the same space? It has to be seriously considered and resolved as recorded music or theatre will never, ever, be as powerful, as nuanced or as emotional as it is when seen and heard done live.
As a keen singer and member of a choir which has already had five concerts cancelled since the lockdown began, the situation facing musicians is of particular concern to me and I’ve been mulling a possible solution.
I suggest a series of honeycomb-style structures, one for orchestras, another for choruses, and all with transparent walls so the performers can see and be in close proximity to their fellow musicians without breaking social distancing protocols. They should also be wired for sound and have (for the singers, partially-screened) windows facing the maestro and the audience.
The Victorian prison chapel at Lincoln Castle, or the catacombs built into the rock on the island of Crete (above), while slightly ghoulish references, give you an idea of how such structures might be arranged to work.
There are accoustic and visual design opportunities in such structures that could revolutionise the performance experience.
As for the audience, many of our fabulous theatres and halls already have tiers of boxes so it should simply be a matter of converting existing ones into one-person cubicles, and rolling out their design to fill the rest of the audience space.
Over to you, interior architects! PS. Your challenge is to sensitively and beautifully adapt existing buildings, to retrofit at all costs.