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What is a concert staging?

Verdi’s Aida – opening soon – is the latest in our acclaimed concert stagings of large-scale works including Wagner’s Ring cycle and The Flying Dutchman, Puccini’s Turandot and Strauss’ Salome.

What is a concert staging? What is the audience experience like, and how does it differ from an opera in the theatre? We caught up with Aida’s Conductor Sir Richard Armstrong, Director Annabel Arden and Assistant Director Matthew Eberhardt

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Born of necessity

Annabel: “Opera North began programming concert stagings for one very practical reason – when staging very big operas, it’s not possible to fit the large orchestra required into many orchestra pits. Some of these really big operas are fantastic and should be heard, so we tour concert halls all over the country.”

A new way to experience opera

Annabel: “These performances are exciting because when you get rid of the proscenium arch you feel very close to the singers; they are in the same space as the audience. Yet it’s not a concert.  They are inhabiting their roles fully, there might be quite physical staging, full costume, and certainly psychological and emotional depth. In Turandot we had a dancing skeleton, a torture scene which involved some visceral action, and Turandot’s giant throne, which collapsed. And being so close, the audience really gets the performers’ physicality, the emotions on their faces.”

The Chorus of Opera North in Turandot (Concert Staging), 2017 © Tristram Kenton

There’s no less drama than in a ‘fully staged’ opera

Annabel: “The orchestra becomes the landscape of the piece. Normally you can’t see them as they are hidden in the pit. But so much of the drama is in their playing, so to have them centre stage is truly thrilling. Turandot for example has the most amazing percussion, and in Aida the famous trumpets are exciting to watch. As well as the huge energy of the orchestra there’s dramatic lighting, video projections, and the intense presence of the fabulous Chorus of Opera North.”

Matthew: “Sometimes these concert stagings are referred to as ‘semi-stagings’, which can lead people to think that they will get half of everything. But no – you get certain elements full on, there are just some other elements which are slightly more reduced. In terms of storytelling and the emotional quality, you get absolutely 100%.”

The Flying Dutchman (Concert Staging), 2015 © Robert Workman

The storytelling is sharpened

Matthew: “Opera narratives can be quite complex, but in this scenario, the narrative is almost like a game of chess – it’s very acute, and you see every move very clearly. By working with a very simple space, what characters do and say is somehow amplified – what’s happening at any given point is just so clear.”

It’s a celebration of the orchestra

Richard: “One of the wonderful things about these stagings is the celebration of the orchestra. Placing the orchestra centre stage (rather than ‘down there somewhere’) really gets to people – I’ve seen it for myself – they really understand something more about the music when they can see so much of it being played by the instrumentalists. The audience will also be able to hear the orchestra with an extra clarity that you get in concert halls, which often have better acoustics.”

Annabel: “It’s incredibly exciting watching the orchestra. I have a theory that if you can see the orchestra moving, you actually hear it better. It’s something to do with what you can see and hear at the same time.”

Turandot (Concert Staging), 2017 © Tristram Kenton

The conductor cannot see the singers

Richard: “From a conductor’s perspective, it’s a very curious way of making music. In the opera house, the singers are in front of you, and you have a good face-to-face relationship. When that’s taken away, it’s quite a challenge. But I’ve been impressed – first of all in Turandot (2017) – at how well the singers were able to manage and maintain that kind of contact, but then also Salome (2018), where you can’t always hear where the beat is. Because we prepared it properly, it ran smoothly.”

What to look forward to in this Verdi’s Aida

Annabel: “We have tried to make a place that Aida ‘lives in’ (because she’s a semi-prisoner) – a glass table with a hidden camera in which is a little bit like an installation. Large video will be projected on an old sail from a ship, and there will be an interesting representation of a dead body – a strange dead black thing with hands. We’re also hoping to explore the language of clay, clay on people’s bodies, little fragments of porcelain.”

Matthew: “Joanna [Parker, Designer] has pre-filmed some material where an actor covered his face in porcelain and then screamed, and slowly the porcelain fell off his face. There’s lots of interesting film imagery that is part of our storytelling.”

Aida

Aida

Find out more about Verdi’s Aida, touring eight concert halls around the UK this May–June.

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