From chariot racing to opera: Verdi comes to Rome’s Circus Maximus

Rome's opera house takes over ancient chariot arena for socially distanced performances following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Rome
General view of the seating area and the stage at Circus Maximus for socially distanced Rome Opera House's summer performances at Circus Maximus, the ancient chariot racetrack, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Rome, Italy, June 25, 2020. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

July 13, 2020

ROME (Reuters) – Rome’s Circus Maximus, once home to ancient chariot races, is preparing for a new season as an opera house as the coronavirus pandemic has forced organisers to seek huge venues that allow for social distancing.

The 2,800-year-old arena, one of the ancient world’s biggest public entertainment venues, has needed weeks of preparation but its generous dimensions and natural structure, akin to ancient Greek theatres, makes it an ideal site.

“The Circus Maximus is transformed from a circus to a theatre, an opera house in this case,” Rome’s Opera House technical director, Francesco Arena, told Reuters.

“It is returning in a way to its origins and its function as a show venue.”The ancient Baths of Caracalla, where the Rome Opera normally holds its summer season, is also outdoors, but it cannot guarantee the distancing afforded by the Circus Maximus, less than 1 km (0.6 miles) down the road.

Temperature checks, widely spaced seating and an especially large stage, are intended to provide security for both opera goers and performers.

“We tried to transform the limits of interpersonal distance into new forms of representation with great use of technologies that allow us to bring the artists closer to each other and the artists closer to the spectators,” said Carlo Fuortes, superintendent of Rome’s Opera Theatre.

Last-minute construction work and rehearsals have been going on feverishly ahead of July 16, when 19th-century Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto will kick off the season.

Fuortes said the virus was forcing theatres around the world to come up with creative solutions and he was confident the experience would be a rewarding one for opera goers starved of live culture during the lockdown.

But it will be a very different atmosphere from the rowdy crowds cheering on their favourite charioteers in ancient times.

(Reporting by Cristiano Corvino and Gabriele Pileri; Writing by Fabiano Franchitti: Editing by James Mackenzie and Janet Lawrence)