Die tote Stadt

This opera opens Opera Australia’s Sydney winter season this year.

It requires a large post-Straussian (that’s Richard-Straussian) orchestra.  The Opera Theatre’s pit cannot fit a large orchestra.

When you have a large orchestra, that usually means that there is a large complement of wind and brass (and sometimes percussion).   Wind and brass parts are generally solo parts: that is, every instrument has its own line; they don’t play ripieno – that is, in vocal terms, chorally.  You can have a wind or a brass choir, but that mostly still means that each instrument carries its own part.  The combination of different instruments gives colour to each pitch and the distribution of pitches (the voicing) then gives a vertical colour to the choir.  To balance the larger wind and brass sections, the number of string players, who mostly do play ripieno (though sometimes there can be divisi parts where the sections split, and even solo parts) has to be augmented.  That means that it is not really satisfactory to make room in the pit for all the extra wind and brass or other players by reducing the number of string players, even supposing that there is not divisi string writing which requires minimum numbers of string players.

One possible solution is simply to reorchestrate the work, which is what Stuart Challender did for the Australian Opera’s aborted “Ring” cycle many years ago.  I think this mostly must have meant simplifying the brass and wind writing.

Another solution is to go elsewhere.  In the past the Australian Opera put on operas in the Concert Hall and at the Capitol Theatre.  This is obviously expensive and has logistical difficulties, though the main difficulty is one of availability of either theatre, compounded by the fact that neither venue is really suitable for nightly set changes that any repertory performance requires.  The Concert Hall does not have any theatre equipment and the Capitol, originally a cinema, has no backstage space to store sets and is also rather too carpeted.

In an experiment about which I have misgivings,  Opera Australia is putting on Erich Korngold’s Die tote Stadt by simply moving the orchestra out of the pit altogether into another room in the Opera House and piping the sound in.  The inducement offered to accept this experiment is the rarity of the work.

This means that the conductor will be in the room (I think the Studio) with the orchestra, and that the singers will only be able to see the conductor on video monitors.

Understandably, perhaps also because of the relative unfamiliarity of the work, it seems that the singers are a bit nervous about this.  It is one thing to rely on a flicker on a screen for general rhythmic cues, but another thing for more detailed cues.  They have asked for a prompter.

Since the orchestra pit is not going to be used, the stage for this production is being extended over the pit.   Presumably, if this had been thought of when the work was designed, a prompt box could have been incorporated into the design.

Instead, the prompter is going to sit in the middle of the front row.

I know this because earlier this week someone from Opera Australia gave me a call.  The prompter is going to sit in my seat, so I will need to be moved.

They offered me a seat next to our seats.  That did not seem immediately attractive to me: surely it will be distracting to sit next to a prompter.  In any event the attraction of a front-row seat is considerably reduced if there is no orchestra in front of you and if the sound is to be amplified proximity will be less important and may even lead to incongruities at close quarters between the singers’ actual voice and the orchestra’s electronic one.  My experience of sitting right up against the extended stage in this year’s production of The Magic Flute (when we were moved back to what is usually the second row to make room for the extension) also left a lot to be desired.

So now we are  to be in the middle of row E.  For me, for the proposed mode of performance, that seems pretty much ideal.

I still have misgivings about this experiment, but I am now much better disposed towards it.

Incidentally, the dead city of the title is, superficially, Bruges, but really the mind or heart of the protagonist, Paul, as he mourns the death of his wife.  The scope for lush big-orchestral Four-last-songs-ism is obvious and I am allowing myself to look forward to that, even if it is to be mediated through loudspeakers.

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