When most people hear the word opera, they think of soaring arias performed against huge, extravagant sets, with elaborate costumes and precise movement. In other words, they think of a staged opera. However, since the 17th century – almost for as long as the art form has existed – operas have also been performed in concert, captivating audiences with the music alone.
In an opera in concert, there’s no set or costumes and only very minimal props, if any at all. The conductor and orchestra join the singers on stage and the singers usually sing from podiums, sometimes with sheet music in front of them to allow for shorter rehearsal times.
Operas in concert are not to be confused with oratorios, although in practice the two are very similar. Oratorios are musically similar to operas, but written specifically to be performed in concert. They’re often religious in subject matter and therefore sung in churches – we’ve written more about this in our article about Handel’s beloved oratorio, Saul.
Nowadays, however, it’s also not uncommon to see oratorios performed as fully staged pieces, should an artistic company decide that’s how they want to present the story, just as another company may opt for a concert performance of an opera. Operas in concert are usually performed in concert halls, however, more recently certain opera houses have been choosing to present them in between their fully staged presentations.
This is partially for practical, financial reasons. Some popular operas from the repertoire are particularly difficult to stage.
Baroque operas as performed in their time were often staged with fantastical effects that required very specific machinery, which no longer exists in most opera houses and theatres. Staging these operas in concert allows them to live on in performances without these technical difficulties, preserving the canon of work. It also makes staging one-off performances of operas possible, as single performances can slot more easily into concert hall schedules without the extra time needed for building, installing and taking down the set. Similarly, the world's most in-demand singers may be more open to making a one-off or limited appearance in concert, particularly to perform a role they've sung before.
I found myself transfixed by the horror so effortlessly conveyed by words and music, freed from the distractions of a staging that can never be perfect.
There are also artistic advantages to choosing to perform an opera in concert. Pulling the orchestra out of the pit means that the music quite literally takes centre stage. Individual instruments and musicians can be highlighted, allowing the audience greater insight into the inner workings of the orchestra and the flow of the libretto. Antonio Pappano, Music Director of The Royal Opera, believes that this can add a physicality to the performance as well: ‘The physical surge in an opera concert can come from the orchestra... it’s like a sort of visual back and forth: all those arms moving back and forth.’
There are benefits for the singers as well, as concert halls allow the audience to be closer to the stage without the division of an orchestra pit. Soprano Deborah Voigt has said of singing opera and arias in concert that, ‘it's always interesting to be that close to an audience, no matter what the repertoire... It's very liberating to be able to focus on the vocal material’. The stripped-back nature of the concert form and the placement of singers on pedestals creates a more mutual relationship, lending intimacy to the performance.
Of course, there may be opera-specific reasons why singers prefer to sing in concert as well. Voigt had always dreaded the role of Tosca, due to her fear of heights and the famous scene in which the title character hurls herself dramatically off a parapet. As Voigt puts it, ‘It's not the vocal challenges in Tosca that keep me up at night: it's the jump.’ In an opera in concert, such stunts are simply conjured up by the audience in their own minds as they’re swept away solely by the music.
Experience opera in concert at the 2023 Festival
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