Opera in the concert hall?

Gillian Moore explains the joys of opera in its barest form

Opera in the concert hall?
Mati Turi as Siegfried in Opera North's Siegfried (Credit: Clive Barda)

Opera doesn’t always have to be enjoyed in the opera house – increasingly, concert halls are staging productions, either semi-staged or in purely concert format. So does that mean the audience gets only half the experience, or does opera in the concert hall in fact bring its own special delights? Gillian Moore, director of music at London’s Southbank Centre, suggests the latter…

One of my most memorable musical experiences was the one and only time I have ever experienced a live performance of Benjamin Britten’s opera Owen Wingrave. It was 1993 at Snape Maltings, and the conductor was Oliver Knussen. The cast stood in front of the orchestra, on either side of the conductor, there was no set or costumes and, as I remember it, only minimal movement on the stage – just enough for the audience to know which fictional location the characters were singing from.

Owen Wingrave is the opera which most clearly dramatises Britten’s pacifist beliefs. It is the story of a young man who rebels against his upstanding family’s military history because he thinks that war is evil. It was originally written for television, but the effect of this Snape concert performance on me was like listening to a particularly intense radio drama. In my head, I imagined the different locations: the military academy, the scenes in London, the ancestral home of the Wingraves and the interactions of the characters. By the time the opera reached its crushing climax and the young Owen’s dead body is found in an upstairs bedroom I was, with the rest of the audience, shocked and moved. 

Looking back at reviews of this concert performance, I notice that there were complaints from some critics that the casting was not dramatically credible. For example, the singer playing Owen’s grandfather was ten years younger than the singer playing Owen. But none of that mattered to me. Britten’s brilliance as a dramatist and Knussen’s musical leadership of the performance meant that a vivid production played out in my imagination.

Now, this is not an argument against staged opera, or a case for opera on the cheap. I’ve been lucky enough to have many great experiences of opera in the theatre, and there is simply nothing quite like it. But, I’d argue, the concert hall is also a great place to experience opera in a different way, in a way which invites the audience to imagine pictures in their head and to focus perhaps more intently on the way in which the composer tells the story in the music. 

This season at Southbank Centre we are making a special feature of opera in the concert hall.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Sir Mark Elder will bring Weber’s Der Freischütz to the Royal Festival Hall, the Czech Philharmonic, Karita Mattila and Jiří Bělohlávek was will present Janáček’s heartbreaking Jenůfa, Iván Fischer will conduct Mozart’s The Magic Flute and the season will culminate with Opera North’s acclaimed Ring cycle, performed over one week in the Royal Festival Hall – the first live performances of the complete Ring at Southbank Centre. 

Some of these performances will be the ‘naked’ opera – just orchestra, singers and conductor. Some, such as the Opera North production of Wagner’s Ring, which was conceived especially for the concert hall, will have simple video which serves to heighten the atmosphere of each scene (as seen in Siegfried, above). But all of these productions have in common a directness of communication, a straightforward telling of the story.

I hope that I am no conservative, but I have found that some of the more excessive corners of conceptual productions and Regietheater in opera houses work on the assumption that the audience already knows the piece and that their main interest will be in how the story is being told, rather than in the story itself. Opera North has stated that their production of The Ring has been created in the hope that someone could walk off the street with no previous knowledge of the work and simply become swept up in the drama.

This Friday, our opera in the concert hall season kicks of with Zurich Opera’s performance of Berg’s Wozzeck, with the great baritone Christian Gerhaher in the title role. Wozzeck must be one of the best case studies if you want to demonstrate why opera is an unbeatable way of telling a story. The story, taken from Georg Buchner’s play, is simple and tragic in itself. But Berg’s music deepens the experience, underlines or contradicts what the words are telling us, heightens the emotional states or gives a different angle on a situation.

So, for example, Wozzeck and his girlfriend Marie are poor people who are flawed and take disastrously wrong decisions. But their music is full of softness, nobility and heart. The more ‘important’ people who oppress them – the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major – are characterised by music which is harsh, angular, insistent. Wozzeck’s descent into madness and his hallucinations are echoed in the orchestra, as if it represents the turmoil and terror inside his head. 

In a key scene where Marie is flirting with the Drum Major who then makes a grab for her, the music in the orchestra chillingly tells us that this is not a happy erotic coupling, but a brutal act of violence. And, in the final heartbreaking scene, we see Wozzeck and Marie’s young child innocently run off to view his mother's murdered corpse as the repeating, unresolved patterns in the orchestral music tells us that the cycle of misery is about to repeat itself.  

The Zurich Opera company and conductor Fabio Luisi will bring their performance directly from a fully-staged run of Andreas Homoki’s vivid and much-praised production at the Zurich Opera House. But on Friday, at the RFH, it will be just an orchestra, some singers, Berg’s music and us, the audience. I know it’s going to be intense. 


Southbank Centre’s International Orchestra Series begins with Zurich Opera’s Wozzeck on Fri 2 October. For details of the 15/16 season, click here


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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