Heard but not seen!


Playing in an opera pit is a tough challenge for any orchestra. It's usually cramped; it's always dark; and you rarely have a sense of how what you are playing is heard by an audience. Add to that the fact that almost every opera is significantly longer than almost every symphony, and that you're performing most nights of the week, and one wonders how anyone survives. And yet some of the most fulfilled musicians I know are the ones who play opera. Ask them what it's like to perform Wagner's Ring, and invariably a slightly glazed look of privilege and pride comes over them. I've not yet met a musician who is bored by one of the Mozart Da Ponte operas.

It's true that the orchestra is only part of an operatic experience but that might be one of the reasons why many players love it. It's most people's human nature to want to be part of something and an opera company gives all involved a sense that they are working towards a goal they could never achieve alone. On a good night, the sense of 'company' that runs through a performance is profound and gives the musical experience a social context and a human connection that cannot be matched by any symphony. Most orchestral musicians are not the most egocentric of people. By playing in an orchestra they are demonstrating their essential desire to belong, and by belonging to an opera company, that belonging is intensified ten fold.

Despite its obvious drawbacks, there can actually be something wonderful about not being seen by the audience. Knowing that it is only what you sound like that matters can liberate you from any sensitivities about how you might look. The best opera orchestras certainly don't take that as an invitation to be sloppy. Far from it, they do in fact look unanimous. It's just that it's as a result of seeking a musical unity rather than a visual one. Free from a relatively meaningless desire to look good when they work in a pit, they can focus purely on the aural element of their work.

The grimness of most opera pits is a stark contrast to the glamour of the theatre itself. But despite this, there is not a single opera in which the orchestra do not have the main role. They are playing all the time, expressing every character's thoughts and feelings, giving depth to the sets, and colouring the lighting. It may be that most of this works on the audience's subconscious and if players need the active and immediate appreciation of their listeners, I can see that they might be frustrated by playing opera. But if they know, as most do, that they are communicating the essence of a powerful drama, that they are allowing singers to express more than just their voices, and that they are part of something that is impossible without teamwork, their invisible subterranean existence can be a wonderful one.

www.markwigglesworth.com

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