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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Mystery of the Vanishing Orchestra

Australian Opera moves the orchestra out of the pit for Die Tote Stadt.
Is this the direction we're heading in?
Image from Real Genius © 1985 Columba TriStar Pictures.

With the opening of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1876, Richard Wagner introduced the concept of the "invisible orchestra," having both conductor and musicians concealed in a sunken, tiered orchestra pit underneath the stage.

In recent years, the trend on Broadway is to move the orchestra out of the house pit, to a room other than the orchestra pit, with the sound digitally funneled in to the performance. Many Broadway shows, desperate to sell premium ticket space in their theaters have relegated their musicians to an afterthought, sawing away in some theater sub-basement.

The Sydney Opera House has gone one better with the Australian Opera's new production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die Tote Shitadt. Korngold wrote in the post-Mahlerian Viennese style, and required multiple keyboard instruments, triple wind, a large brass section and four keyboard instruments. Add seven offstage bells, wind, percussion, a high-pile carpet of strings and you get the idea.

Since Korngold's huge orchestra is too big for the pit of the Sydney Opera House, the musicians, their instruments and (of course) the conductor are being moved into a nearby hall to play remotely. This creates huge logistical issues for the performance, as it prevents the conductor from interacting directly with the singers.

Also, by not hearing the relative volume of the enormous ensemble with the singers onstage, the conductor cannot make judgement calls regarding the volume of the orchestra and whether the singers can punch through the wall of sound coming from the newly installed speakers.

This "remote control" approach to music-making is necessary sometimes when dealing with offstage ensembles, or even onstage ones like the three orchestras Mozart asks for in the masquerade scene from Don Giovanni. But moving the main orchestra and the conductor completely offstage seems like a terrible risk for any opera, let alone one as demanding as Die Tote Stadt.

Die Tote Stadt opens July 7.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats