The conductor at Royal Opera of Versailles strode up onto the rostrum baton in hand to attack Beethoven’s Fifth, before turning to bow to the audience.
Except there was no one there other than his orchestra.
Such is live music in time of the virus, as governments across the world close down concert halls to try to contain the pandemic.
But for Francois-Xavier Roth and the musicians of Les Siecles orchestra at the beautiful opera house next to the Palace of Versailles near Paris, the show had to go on, even if only for the cameras.
Last Saturday, they were not alone. Many of the world’s greatest orchestras and opera houses are also streaming their production free as a consolation to music lovers in these trying times.
Making music has become one of the first and most instinctive responses to the coronavirus and the panic that has spread with it, with Italians singing from their balconies to comfort each other as the country’s total lockdown continues.
Tenor Maurizio Marchini serenaded his neighbours from his Florence balcony with Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” and another impromptu performance by soprano Laura Baldassari from the window of her Milan apartment also went viral.
But faced with what could be prolonged closure, venues like Versailles are turning to streaming while performers left to twiddle their thumbs are finding creative ways to keep up the connection with their public and make new fans.
The Russian-German pianist Igor Levit has been giving daily recitals to his 60,000 Twitter followers under the banner “No Fear,” and sharing encouraging messages and morale-boosting quotations.
The American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato gave a live recital on Sunday from her sitting room with the Polish tenor Piotr Beczala on Instagram and Facebook.
In between extracts of Massenet’s “Werther,” she appealed for her audiences to donate to theaters and orchestra hit by the crisis.
The French violinist Renaud Capucon tweeted a video of himself playing Dvorak using the NomadPlay application, which allows musicians to be accompanied by a whole virtual orchestra.
New York’s Metropolitan Opera has started replaying its productions free on its site.
“We’d like to provide some grand opera solace to opera lovers in these extraordinarily difficult times,” the Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb said.
“Every night we’ll be offering a different complete operatic gem from our collection … from the past 14 years,” he said.
The Vienna and Munich operas are doing the same with the Royal Swedish Opera going the whole hog and streaming the entire five hours of its concert production of Wagner’s “The Valkyrie”.
The world’s most prestigious orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, was the first to set the ball rolling, freeing up its normally paid-for Digital Concert Hall streaming service.
The Paris Philharmonie has made all its old concerts available on its app, PhilharmonieLive, as well as playlists and a virtual tour of the Museum of Music next door.
“If you can’t come to the music, the music will come to you,” it declared.
The Paris Opera, which is reeling from the double whammy of a marathon strike which cost it more than 16.4 million euros (US$18 million) at the box office, plans to put together a program of free streamed performances.
Close to tears
But at the Royal Opera at Versailles there was only so much you could put a brave face on.
Enrique Therain, of the Les Siecles orchestra which Roth was conducting, was close to tears when he talked during the interval of Saturday’s concert.
“Notre-Dame in Paris burned not that long ago. Now it is the performing arts that is going up in flames,” he said as he appealed to rich philanthropists to come to the arts’ aid.
He said the virus was a “cataclysm” for performers, many of whom would be looking at months without pay, with venues also threatened.
The French Association of Artists’ Agents appealed to the French government to create a compensation fund, and the country’s Classical Singers’ Collective also demanded action from the authorities, with “the future of many artists seriously threatened.”