From June of 2020 through last season, the DC-based professional ensemble the Thirteen managed to go ahead with its concert schedule as planned, except that it performed for virtual audiences. Singers were kept safe through a combination of testing, masking, and quarantining, says artistic director Matthew Robertson. By October 2021, with COVID vaccination well under way and audience protocols in place, the chorus resumed in-person performances with a rarely heard vespers by Monteverdi. “There was this palpable sigh of relief from our audience,” says Robertson, “just incredible enthusiasm for finally being able to experience that connection that had been so missing as a part of their lives.”
Despite Omicron, the Thirteen’s planned concerts February 11–13, featuring music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, will go ahead as planned. Robertson says there was never a moment when he or other decision-makers considered postponing. “I feel like our protocols are really strong, I feel that our audience musicians and staff really trust the efficacy of them,” he says. “And I think that we all recognize the mental health imperative of getting music into our communities and rebuilding them.”
Making the Decision
Early in the pandemic, Robertson says, staff leaders and the board of the Thirteen agreed on three decision-making principles that remain “guiding lights”:
Keep our audience, artists, and staff safe.
Todd Stubbs, who became the Thirteen’s managing director in September, feels the 2021–22 season thus far has been one of continual evaluation and introspection. “We've made a strong plan,” he says, “and that's led us down the right path. Our protocols help our musicians and our audience members come to terms with the pandemic, but also allow them to move forward with their music.” Robertson senses that the Thirteen’s audiences are more cautious than the average classical music audience in DC. Nonetheless, Stubbs reports the chorus has received only one or two emails wondering about protocols for the February program. He adds that his confidence is rooted in the solidarity he and Robertson have forged with their board. “We're of one mind when it comes to ensuring the safety of our musicians of our staff, of the audience,” he says.
Recognize that music is needed at this time.
The leaders of the Thirteen also share a strong belief in the importance of bringing music to their audience. “We have a real mission to provide meaningful musicmaking experiences, to foster connection, empathy in our communities,” Robertson says. “That means performing. We have to be out there.”
Take care of our artists during a really challenging time.
Performing online in 2020–21 and in person this season has enabled the Thirteen to pay its professional singers or, as Robertson puts it, “just really take care of our musicians and artists in a way that we feel proud of.” He says the chorus was able to honor all the singer agreements it made pre-COVID, and it compensated artists 100 percent for concerts that were canceled in May 2020.
The Thirteen’s commitment to live-steaming concerts also factored in its decision to perform in person despite the Omicron surge. The approach gives loyal patrons who are reluctant to attend concerts during the pandemic a way to share the experience.
Although the decision to perform in February was never in doubt, the changing course of the pandemic has forced the Thirteen to adjust its protocols along the way—in particular, the question of capping the audience size. Facing the Delta variant in October, they limited ticket sales to 50 percent of hall capacity, Stubbs says. In early November, “we decided that we could push our December capacities up a little bit, but when we were putting any media out, we always left a range from 50 to 66 percent, which allowed us to pull back if we had to.” By the second week of December, Omicron had arrived, and according to Stubbs, “we were fairly close to 50 percent capacity at that point.” For February, the cap will remain at 50 percent.
Health and Safety Protocols Currently in Place
The Thirteen’s protocols for the current season are based on CDC guidance and they’re flexible, says Robertson. “We began by requiring vaccination and we're now requiring boosters, masking of our audience, and testing of our musicians,” he explains. “When Omicron came around there wasn't a ton of impact on our protocols, because, frankly, we feel like they were relatively strong pre-Omicron.”
A January 21 email statement summarizes the chorus’s approach:
All audience members, musicians, and staff must show proof of vaccination and booster and matching government-issued identification (remind your guests). Please stay home if you are feeling unwell or coughing or sneezing excessively;
We are limiting capacity to 50 percent or less. The Thirteen will perform in large spaces: churches with high ceilings and ample ventilation;
Masks are required for all audience members and staff. We may unmask our singers; any unmasked musicians will have received a negative Covid-19 test on the day of the performance.
To apply a more personal touch to the expectations outlined in the group’s email blasts and on its website, Robertson says he recorded video introductions to the COVID protocols. The process of sharing plans with singers includes an opportunity to provide feedback in case “they would prefer something that might make them more comfortable,” he adds.
Learning from an Unexpected Past, Planning for an Unpredictable Future
As the pandemic continues to unfold, Robertson says he will continue to monitor case numbers, the effectiveness of the vaccines, and the capacity of future coronavirus variants to cause disease. “I don't think that there's any one metric that is going to determine that it's safe to make our protocols more permissive,” he says, or, beyond that, “to go back to business as it was in 2019,” adds Stubbs. “That's going to be a very gradual process,” he expects. What he can say now is “we're going to continue to reevaluate constantly and make decisions that make sense for our musicians' health, for the health of our patrons, and for the health of the music that we make.”