Proscenium Unbound: The Evolution of Concert Opera, Part 2

By David Shengold

Opera Philadelphia and The Philadelphia Orchestra’s May 2014 performance of “Salome” with Alan Held as Jochanaan (center). Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and directed by Kevin Newbury (photo: Dominic M. Mercier).

Staged concert performances can provide profound musical and theatrical experiences without the full expense of traditionally produced work, but less expensive does not necessarily mean less complex. In April, Chuck Hudson directed Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar for Kentucky’s Lexington Philharmonic. He says taking an opera down to its basic elements “doesn’t mean easy or cheap; it means finding what is essential.” With multiple parties operating on different schedules, the challenges of the Kentucky production were as much logistical as artistic: In addition to the orchestra, the production included Kentucky Opera Studio Artists, University of Kentucky Opera Theatre students, and flamenco singer Jesús Montoya, reprising the role he performed for the Grammy Award-winning 2006 Deutsche Grammophon recording.

Less expensive does not necessarily mean less complex.

The challenges of working with so many players — and only two weeks of rehearsal time — were counterbalanced by the potential to broaden existing patrons’ musical palettes and attract new audiences. Lexington’s executive director, Allison Kaiser, describes Ainadamar as part of the company’s “trajectory to increase the community’s comfort level and enthusiasm for more diverse repertoire that might be outside the traditional orchestral world.” The production succeeded in attracting many people who were new to the company: 77 percent of Ainadamar attendees were single-ticket buyers (up from the company’s usual 50 percent), and those who attended were far more diverse in terms of age and ethnicity than typical orchestral concert crowds. Music director Scott Terrell attributes this success to the strategic selection of partners, such as Kentucky Opera, that allowed the orchestra to tap into new audiences: “We built in success through the collaborative partners we chose to work with.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s operatic tradition stretches back to Wozzeck’s staged American premiere in 1931, but in 2014, the orchestra launched a collaboration with Opera Philadelphia. The inaugural work, Salome, was led by the orchestra’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and staged by Kevin Newbury. A frequent director for major opera companies, Newbury has also staged operas with the orchestras of Baltimore, San Francisco and Utah. “You want simplicity of gesture and directness,” says Newbury. “When you eliminate scene changes or dance numbers, the orchestra and conductor become part of the audience’s visual and aural experience, which can be very stimulating, especially in a site-specific event.” But, he notes, the the pace: “It’s like a film set, with limited time, so it’s vital to come in knowing exactly who is going to provide what, who has what systems in place.”

Camilla Nylund (center) in the title role of “Salome,” presented by Opera Philadelphia and The Philadelphia Orchestra (photo: Dominic M. Mercier).

Opera Philadelphia’s general director, David Devan, says Salome was a “beta test” of the collaborative process with The Philadelphia Orchestra, but with the sell-out success of what he likes to call “a theater-concert mash-up,” the partnership is moving forward. Connections were formed across all levels of the respective organizations — executive, artistic, operational, marketing and fundraising. And the initiative is consonant with the opera company’s “multiple-product platform” strategy, which encompasses traditional productions at the Academy of Music, chamber opera at the intimate Perelman Theater and avant-garde fare for its Opera in the City series at a local warehouse. Says Devan, “In each case, the repertoire we do in these spaces can only be done in those spaces. Extending to the concert hall is a natural thing for us.”

The orchestral collaboration also enables the company to explore repertoire that requires musical forces beyond the capacity of the Academy’s 68-musician pit, such as the Wagner canon. And, with the 110 musicians of The Philadelphia Orchestra, Devan says the “sound world” is fundamentally different: “You experienced Salome in a way you’ve never experienced Salome before.”

The orchestra and opera company were also able to collaborate on fundraising, leading to full underwriting of the initiative from both traditional and new sources. This success, Devan believes, is partly driven by benefits beyond the artistic: “Running an opera company is hard and running an orchestra is hard, and if we can create a bigger civic footprint by working together, we are serving the entire community in a better way.”

“Running an opera company is hard and running an orchestra is hard, and if we can create a bigger civic footprint by working together, we are serving the entire community in a better way.” — David Devan

In 2014, North Carolina capped its season with Crystal Manich’s staging of Rusalka and opened the following season with the Prelude and Act II of Tristan und Isolde in concert. Both earned high praise — and strong ticket sales. General Director Eric Mitchko says the concerts expanded his audience’s repertory while featuring rising international stars (Joyce El-Khoury, Russell Thomas, Heidi Melton) whom the company might not have secured for a fully staged run. “The shorter rehearsal framework makes it easier to secure time in multipurpose theaters, as well,” Mitchko explains. “Many regional companies face serious competition for stage time from touring Broadway shows, plus the local ballet and theater companies.”

Joyce El-Khoury in the title role of North Carolina Opera’s 2014 “Rusalka.” Conducted by Timothy Myers and directed by Crystal Manich (photo: Curtis Brown).

Bruce Loving, North Carolina’s public relations and marketing consultant, says the concert format adds an essential product diversification, especially for its most ardent devotees. “You can fill the season with all the Bohèmes and Butterflies you like, but the core opera audience wants to see something different.” The difference must, however, be clearly communicated. Says Loving, “It’s important to convey to ticket-buyers what they are going to see so that the people who come expecting a fully staged production aren’t disappointed, and that the people expecting an orchestra on stage know that they will get more.”

Collaboration, imagination and flexibility, with assured artistic,technical and administrative follow-through, are essential components for concert opera in all of its various iterations. But are there limits? Some works clearly lend themselves to simpler staging; some, frankly, do not. Prop-reliant plots like Tosca and dialogue-heavy shows like Candide (which require maximal cast rehearsal) work less than ideally in concert; inwardly focused pieces can be far more inviting: Dido and Aeneas, Der Freischütz, Bluebeard’s Castle, Daphne, Il prigioniero and Pelléas et Mélisande (prop list: one letter, one ring).

Yet, even with the most spirited fusion of staging and repertoire, the egos of organizations, conductors, directors and divas must always be muted. You can cast the finest singers and add the most arresting visual elements, but for concert opera, in any and all of its varied forms, the orchestra always plays a starring role.

David Shengold has written for Opera News, Opera, Opernwelt, Playbill and Time Out New York.

Read part 1 of this story.

This article was excerpted from the Summer 2015 issue of Opera America Magazine, the quarterly of the national nonprofit service organization for opera. Members of OPERA America receive the print and digital editions of Opera America Magazine as a benefit of membership. Join today.

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