Went to Die Tote Stadt first night on Saturday. The much anticipated ‘Australian premiere’ production by Bruce Beresford, starring Cheryl Barker and power-tenor Stefan Vinke. At the season’s launch back in August 2011 there was much talk of technology and vague promises of holograms to create the Maria/Marianna doppelgänger. That idea obviously got binned, but the production had one significant technology-dependent innovation, the remote orchestra.
Opera Australia has battled with the physical infrastructure of the Opera Theatre ever since the building opened – not an uncommon problem for opera companies / houses, but particularly intractable in this case, not least because the building is a national icon, World Heritage, and built on water and political stuff-upperies. The company gets by with a rather thin serving of strings and liberal use of earplugs for romantic repertoire, but there are some scores which simply won’t fit. Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, even with parsimonious string allocations, is one such. Multiple keyboards, two harps, and a barrage of percussion require real estate.
Conductor Christian Badea has plenty experience in delivering non-traditional concert presentations such as live music to film, so he was a willing and thoroughly competent collaborator Opera Australia’s solution, putting the orchestra in a room on the other side of the Opera House and piping the music in. It was superbly executed: close your eyes, and it sounded just like the pit was full of musicians. Indeed, it sounded better than usual, perhaps because there were more strings. The orchestra, reportedly, love playing in their own little studio – the conditions are much more comfortable – and they get an onstage bow at the end. The downside, for the audience, is the black hole of the pit — there’s no-one there, and speaking as someone who loves watching the orchestra, that’s miserable. That, and a few notable moments when the sound system could not reproduce the visceral, raw complexity of a grand romantic tutti. But top marks for trying.
I have to admit I was, in the end, a bit nonplussed by the whole experience, and it got me thinking about whether there are other solutions to the pit apart from this hi-tech approach. I came up with three (with lots of help, it must be said, from @prestontowers and @Stufromoz). There must be more…
1. Spend gazillions on making the bugger bigger. I can just see the builder standing in the pit, sucking through his teeth and saying, “you’d be better off to pull it down and start again, luv”. Given that it’s a State-owned building and NSW ain’t exactly flush right now, I would not be holding my breath.
2. The pragmatist’s approach: use less players, rescoring the work if necessary. That’s what will happen for Strauss’s Salome later in the season. Strauss wrote for an even bigger orchestra than Korngold (although not quite as many offstage players). Opera Australia uses a (composer sanctioned) cut down version.
3. The absolutist approach. Don’t do big romantic repertoire in Sydney Opera House’s Opera Theatre. In fact, be more flexible about venues in general, fitting the repertoire to the space as demands. Baroque works brilliantly in City Recital Hall. Wagner works well in the Capitol. Mozart and Britten can be great in the Opera Theatre.
Many people do not realise that Opera Australia is *not* the same company as the Sydney Opera House. They are Australia’s national opera company, resident at the Opera House. But if the Opera House cannot meet the company’s needs, why should it not seek more suitable performance spaces in the service of its art?
Maybe it is because art is not the only master Opera Australia serves. And whether you are a cynic, a pragmatist or an idealist, that is the real concern behind the current ‘solution’ to the Sydney Opera House pit.