“An exotic and irrational entertainment, which has been always combated, and always has prevailed.” Up to the first comma, Dr. Johnson’s roguish definition of opera has shown remarkable staying power. Today, the little-remembered concluding phrases are the part we need to cling to. Damn the pandemic! The show must go on!

And so it does, but at a distance, in archival video or fresh-killed on Zoom. We’ve even seen full-court-press grand opera played to houses that are empty, or nearly so, for far-flung fans in voluntary or enforced self-isolation. A case in point: the new Otello at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, in Florence, which premiered live on November 30 with an audience of 70,000 in virtual attendance. The octogenarian Zubin Mehta conducted, anchoring the score in foursquare gravitas. The tenor Fabio Sartori—once a welder, now a mainstay of the Italian repertory in top houses all over Europe—provided a news hook with his debut as the Moor of Venice. The production’s director, Valerio Binasco, advanced the action to the period of the Great War without losing himself in the weeds of Concept. The chorus, deployed like so many tin soldiers, hit their marks six feet apart, harmonizing through masks.

On the merits, this was a presentable Otello if not one for the ages. Still, as documentation of an endangered operatic culture fighting for its life, the evening bore the stamp of an instant classic. In its strengths as in its shortcomings, here is the face of opera at the present moment.

Alexander Pereira, of Florence’s Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

The company’s sovrintendente, Alexander Pereira, is an impresario who has seen it all. Over two decades at the Zurich Opera (1991–2012), his starry casts and intense schedule of newsworthy new productions kept aficionados humming around the world. Since Zurich, he has occupied top positions at the Salzburg Festival and Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. In a wide-ranging conversation on Zoom, Pereira pondered the realities of opera in 2020 and beyond.

Matthew Gurewitsch: Apart from the obvious medical, logistical, economic, and artistic challenges institutions are facing, are there challenges that are less obvious?

Alexander Pereira: Getting the timing right. This Otello of ours would have been impossible if I hadn’t started in August with weekly Covid tests for every single employee in the company. This was necessary for several reasons. First of all, people were nervous. You couldn’t know how they’d behave or how they’d react to others—sometimes in ways that are really very worrying. Second, you need to create a culture of mutual responsibility. In reality, in every community there are people who are very careful and people who just don’t give a damn. So as long as there was no vaccine, the only solution was to monitor everyone very closely.

It was critical for me to keep broadcasting the message, “I don’t have Covid in my house.” And this helped make everyone more careful. No one wanted to be the one people would be pointing fingers at. Even when we had to close the house and put everyone on furlough for two weeks, I called people back and gave them a full day’s pay for their weekly tests.

The chorus hit their marks six feet apart, harmonizing through masks.

M.G.: Have there been any unanticipated benefits to the pandemic?

A.P.: Yes. Our new theater, which has been in full operation since 2014, has a sort of Greek amphitheater construction on the roof—but it was never used before. It seats 2,000. During the summer, we were able to perform Un Ballo in Maschera and La Traviata in the open air for audiences of 1,000 people. It turned out that the acoustics are sensational. Francesco Meli, who sang in Ballo, said, “I feel like I’m singing in my bathtub!” So through Covid, we’ve discovered a new theater for Florence!

M.G.: When you do a new production of a work you’ve produced before, there’s usually some new agenda—something you want to say that you haven’t said before. What might you have had in mind for this Otello?

A.P.: You always have to acknowledge the times you’re working in, at least a little bit. So we wanted to create a situation that could be now, but not too much now, a situation with room for a certain abstraction.

Through Covid, we’ve discovered a new theater for Florence!

The hurdle for this production was the pandemic. There was no way to pretend it wasn’t happening. When you see the chorus in the first act practically not moving, that’s obviously a problem. Somehow, we had to find a way to make the production give people some sort of hope, to show that the theater is still alive and well. That was the goal. Inevitably, in such a difficult situation the show was going to be a bit of a mishmash—in German we say an eierlegende Wollmilchsau, a sow that has fur and gives milk and lays eggs. I couldn’t really hope to put on the most important Otello that ever was.

Fabio Sartori, center, as the Moor in a scene from Otello.

M.G.: And obviously, there were anachronisms that Verdi couldn’t ever have anticipated. Still, to my eye, it could have been a revival of a show from the 1950s or so. By contemporary standards, it’s actually rather conservative. Would you agree?

A.P.: Yes, you could say that.

M.G.: Except for one thing: Otello isn’t played in blackface. Would that have been the same hot-button issue in continental Europe as it is in the English-speaking world?

A.P.: We thought, this piece of the story has nothing to do with what we’re going through today. It’s stupid. Let’s throw it out. Let’s throw out all the superficial things and concentrate, very straightforward, on the essence of the story.

In every community there are people who are very careful and people who just don’t give a damn. So as long as there was no vaccine, the only solution was to monitor everyone very closely.

M.G.: Fabio Sartori’s debut as Otello was big news in Europe. He’s not an artist we really know in America. What can you tell us about why you chose him?

A.P.: In Europe, we consider him one of the three greatest Italian tenors of our time. Okay, he might not have the movie-star allure of a Jonas Kaufmann. On the other hand, Sartori has a quality Luciano Pavarotti also had. He has naïveté. That’s the quality that conquers the public. People believe him. When Sartori sings Nemorino, in Elisir d’Amore, you want to hug him—the same as with Pavarotti.

M.G.: Nemorino and Otello are very different roles, of course …

A.P.: As Otello, I thought Sartori was absolutely wonderful. Mostly, companies cast the role with a tenore drammatico who will just shout as loud as he can. But that’s not the way the music is written. Otello has to have a fine pianissimo, and not just in the love duet. He has to have a great range of colors. Francesco Tamagno, Verdi’s first Otello, wasn’t a tenore drammatico either. He was an elegant, beautiful lirico spinto—lyrical, but with big guns for the big moments.

M.G.: Is there another Otello you’d compare him to?

A.P.: Well, let me tell you about something wonderful that happened while we were rehearsing. Plácido Domingo was here in Florence singing Nabucco, with Sartori in the cast as Ismaele. As you know, Otello was a signature role of Domingo’s, one he sang more than 200 times. And Domingo worked with Sartori on Otello the entire time he was in Florence, passing on all the tips and insights from his long career. Of course, Sartori isn’t the “next” Domingo—every voice is unique. But Domingo was totally fascinated by Sartori’s voice. He said Sartori would be the Otello of the future.

Plácido Domingo worked with Fabio Sartori on Otello the entire time he was in Florence, passing on all the tips and insights from his long career.

M.G.: Long term, how do you think the pandemic will have changed audiences?

A.P.: Realistically, I think it will be March before we can open the theaters again, and then only for 500 or 600 people in a house that seats 1,800. That’s enough space to take care of the aficionados. The hard part will be bringing back the more occasional opera goers. How hungry are they? How real is the demand? Would they rather be left alone? For sure, we’ll have to get as many top artists as we can to convince audiences to come back.

M.G.: Are artists changing, too?

A.P.: Many have been pushed to the brink of survival. Psychologically, I think they want to get back to normal as soon as possible. Now, we’re starting to get the vaccine. If by the end of next year, things normalize, it will be like the pandemic was a bad dream.

Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii