Presenting Erich Korngold’s Die tote Stadt has compelled Australia’s national opera company to think outside the box – literally
When Korngold’s youthful masterpiece was first mooted at Opera Australia, the creative team, which included Oscar-winning film director Bruce Beresford and Romanian conductor Christian Badea, took a long, hard look at the physical limitations of the Opera Theatre in Sydney’s iconic Opera House and came to the conclusion that it just could not be done. Korngold’s score calls for two keyboards, two harps, and a barrage of percussion and sound effects, plus a generous-sized romantic orchestra. The pit below the stage of the Opera Theatre does not have the floor space to accommodate Korngold’s orchestra and, with that many players, noise levels in the pit could exceed operational health and safety limitations, posing a danger to the musicians’ hearing.
Previous music directors have addressed the limitations of the Opera Theatre either by using reduced scoring or, in the case of Simone Young’s 2003 production of Die Meistersinger, moving to another theatre. This time Badea suggested a new approach: using the stage, but moving the orchestra to another location. Director Bruce Beresford embraced the idea. Not only did it fit his artistic vision of presenting Korngold, one of Hollywood’s first composers for film, as a cinema-style experience, but it also allowed him to extend the stage forwards over the pit.
So on Saturday June 30, 2012 Korngold’s Die tote Stadt received its Australian premiere in the Opera Theatre and the Opera House Studio. The singers performed without amplification, as usual, except for discreet microphones to relay their sound to the conductor, Badea, who was on the podium in the Studio, conducting the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. A second conductor in the pit gave visual cues and prompts to the singers, while 97 speakers blasted out Korngold’s lush orchestrations to the audience.
Did Opera Australia’s experiment work? Yes and no. The sound quality was mostly superb; indeed, at times it was better than normal, not least because the orchestra could play at full dynamics in the Studio, with volume levels adjusted digitally. Where it lost out was in the climaxes, which lacked that visceral punch and complexity of a grand tutti. And for many in the audience, not having the orchestra in the pit was a real loss, eroding the live experience.
Meanwhile, the digital illusion was brilliantly sustained: horns sounded from below stage left, violins sounded from stage right. To reassure the audience that it really was a live orchestra, live video footage of the band was projected onto a downstage scrim at the start of each act, and at the conclusion the entire orchestra trekked across from the Studio to take a bow.
The remote orchestra strategy received muted approval from critics. The Sydney Morning Herald critic Peter McCallum said the sound had ‘admirable clarity’, but added that ‘the orchestral score is so rich it would be of equal interest to sit with the orchestra and have the singers piped in…’
It is too early to declare the experiment a complete success, but there is already speculation about the potential of this approach, musically and artistically, for opera in Sydney. On the positive side, using a remote orchestra would allow Opera Australia to explore new repertoire and new modes of presenting opera. Then there are the naysayers, including ‘Wanderer’, commenting at Norman Lebrecht’s ‘Slipped Disk’ blog: ‘Watch out. Today they let the orchestra play from another room over loudspeakers. Tomorrow someone presents in a board meeting the idea, that since the orchestra is not visible anyway, one might as well use a recording instead of a live orchestra.’