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Culture in lockdown: 3. Yana Tsanova

Musicians from UceLi Quartet perform for an audience made up of 2,292 plants at the Gran Teatre del Liceu opera house in Barcelona, Spain, on 22nd June 2020. Photo: Jordi Vidal / Getty Images

This is the third part of a five-part series. See also our profiles of theatre director Matthew Xia, comedian Dom Joly, Elvis impersonator Brendan Paul and indie-rock musician Elizabeth Stokes

Yana Tsanova, classical musician
Barcelona, Spain

On 22nd June 2020, Yana Tsanova (pictured above, right of group) took to the stage at the Gran Teatre del Liceu opera house in Barcelona. It was the first concert to take place in the venue since the easing of Spain’s initial ‘State of Alarm’ the day before. With Tsanova were the three other members of the UceLi string quartet and on the bill was Giacomo Puccini’s ‘I Crisantemi’ (‘Chrysanthemums’). The auditorium was packed. The quartet, stiffly dressed in formal evening wear, bowed to the audience, took their seats and began to play.

The serried ranks of spectators were not classical music fans, however, but plants – one perched on each of the opera house’s 2,292 seats. An artist named Eugenio Ampudia had turned the five gilt-drenched circles of the Liceu into an improvised forest of potted greenery. The concert that followed was streamed online, filmed by a drone that looped through the air above the musicians and their leafy spectators. “The first time we four met in real life after the lockdown was for this concert, and it was so emotional to finally be able to play together,” says Tsanova. “It was also very striking to walk out and see our opera house full of plants; it’s something we will always remember.

“During the three months of lockdown everything had stopped, including the traffic,” continues Tsanova. “Suddenly we heard so many birds. Nature was doing better without us all rushing around; the environment was improving. So Ampudia’s idea was, ‘Okay, the public cannot enter the concert halls, so why not let nature in as a tribute?’”

Images of the concert spread swiftly online and even made the front cover of National Geographic. “It was maybe the first happy event after three months of depressing bad news and things not getting better,” says Tsanova. “It was something positive in the middle of all this disaster.” As a final flourish, each plant was given as a gift to a caregiver at the Hospital Clínic de Barcelona, which had been pushed to the limits in the first wave of Covid-19.

When the State of Alarm had first begun back on 14th March 2020, Tsanova had taken it in her stride. She was working hard in her main job as one of the first violins in the Liceu’s symphony orchestra. “We were rehearsing the Wagner opera Lohengrin, which is over four hours long and quite difficult, and I thought, ‘Okay, maybe if we have a little two-week break it’s not so bad.’ But then of course we realised it would be much longer than two weeks, and we started to get worried.”

As the coronavirus burned its way through Catalonia in the three months that followed, Tsanova and her fellow musicians looked for ways they could help. “We were hearing all this news about the hospitals, that there were so many patients in isolation who didn’t have contact with their families or friends. So we started recording special pieces – melodies from famous operas and things like that – to cheer people up, so that even if they were alone in a hospital room waiting to recover, they could still hear some nice music. With my quartet we recorded the Habanera from Carmen and a nurse sent us a video of an old lady singing along to it on top of our playing. It was really touching.”

The entire symphony orchestra also managed to record a performance of Nessun Dorma remotely: the video mixes Zoom footage of the musicians performing at home with shots of the empty streets of Barcelona, then segues into film of the busy, pre-pandemic city at the rousing conclusion of ‘Vincerò!’ (‘I will be victorious!’).

By early 2021, the opera house had begun to welcome back human audiences, albeit at a maximum of only 1,000 people, less than 50 percent capacity. It has in part been able to do so because it had the funds to invest in a highly sophisticated ventilation system.

“We play wearing masks,” says Tsanova, “which is uncomfortable, but if it’s the price to pay in order to continue working, we have to do it. We are very lucky at the moment that we still can perform. Because I know that many theatres and many orchestras in Europe are closed right now. I have many friends who work as freelance musicians and suddenly they have been left without anything, without any income and without a clear future.

“Normal concerts need to come back some time because they are such an important part of life,” says Tsanova. “There’s such a difference when you see a concert live and when you play with people live; there is no comparison. I live in hope that sooner or later this crisis will pass.”

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