German epidemiologists back full audiences at opera and classical concerts

Study claims that ‘well-educated, disciplined’ crowd would stick to Covid-19 rules

Epidemiologists at a leading German medical institution have backed allowing full audiences at opera and classical concerts, suggesting there is a greater risk of contracting Covid-19 at the supermarket than from Salomé.

The study by two institutes at Berlin’s Charité hospital recommends audience members wear a surgical mask at all times, with no catering that would require masks to be removed.

Standard hygiene rules – social distancing, hand disinfection and crowd direction – are considered a given, while priority should be given to venues with ventilation systems that can exchange the air several times an hour.

The key arguments for bringing back full houses, the researchers say, lie in the specific nature of the setting – and the crowd.


“The classical audience is very special, usually well-educated, disciplined, don’t talk, usually stick to rules and don’t sit opposite each other,” said Prof Stefan Willich, director of the Institute for Social Medicine and Epidemiology at the Charité.

Recent studies have shown, he said, that the classical music orchestra setting is “very protected as far as droplets and aerosol [virus] transmission”.

The Charité researchers, after analysing international studies on airborne virus transmission, also recommend allowing orchestras return to an almost usual distance from each other.

Germany’s federal culture minister Monika Grütters has welcomed the paper as another contribution to the debate on reopening German cultural venues. She said this year’s Salzburg festival – offering a reduced programme and smaller audiences – had shown that “pandemic-focused theatre can be staged”.

Current regulations in Germany envision a 2020/2021 season with four out of five seats empty.

No booing

The study’s authors insist their recommendations are based on the situation in Germany, with up to 1,500 new Covid-19 cases daily. And they acknowledge the greater risk from the virus potentially posed, given classical audiences usually have a higher-than-average age.

But the authors suggest it should be up to audience members to assess the risk – or benefit – of attending a cultural event.

Prof Willich, an amateur conductor in his spare time with a love of Beethoven and Mahler, suggests the pandemic offers opportunities, too. For one, to flag as socially unacceptable the waves of psychological coughing between movements. And what about the crucial climax of a night at the opera: the booing?

“Perhaps there could be an addition to the announcement before the performance,” said Prof Willich. “‘No video or audio recordings and please no booing at this time – even if it is justified.’”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin