MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Nights at the Opera

Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre presented by the New York Philharmonic in 2010; (c) Chris Lee 2010

Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre presented by the New York Philharmonic in 2010; (c) Chris Lee 2010

My new feature for Symphony magazine’s Fall 2013 issue is available online now:

Total immersion: that was the radical brand of opera Richard Wagner hoped to inaugurate at Bayreuth. To enhance its effect, he famously made the “invisible orchestra” an integral part of his design. Yet the overall ideal of intensified theatrical illusion remained frustratingly out of reach, hampered by the limitations of the stage technology of the time. Cosima Wagner reported her husband’s sardonic joke in the aftermath of his deep disappointment over the first complete Ring: “Now that I’ve created the invisible orchestra, I’d like to invent the invisible stage!”

The concert hall has meanwhile long provided an appealing milieu in which to experience opera with another kind of immediacy—one that focuses on the musical dimension of this most collaborative of the arts and, far from disguising the orchestra, features it as the central character. And recent innovations that involve this format for presenting opera are even helping, in some cases, to redefine the orchestra’s institutional identity and sense of mission. A new era of co-productions involving artists from other disciplines, the choice of thematically meaningful repertory, marketing centered around concerts that include a visual and theatrical element as a special “event” of the season: all these are different facets of how opera in the concert hall has evolved in recent seasons.

The links between some of America’s most venerable orchestral institutions and opera are deeply rooted, whether in concert presentations (Frederick Stock’s legendary Tristan with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1935 and Dimitri Mitropoulos’s programming of complete operas with the New York Philharmonic in the 1950s) or in full productions actually in the opera house, such as the U.S. premiere of Wozzeck in 1931, which featured the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski.

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Filed under: concert programming, opera, orchestras

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