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Formed in 1995, the mission of Concert Opera Boston is to sponsor outstanding and affordable performances of concert opera in the greater Boston area. Concert Opera Boston also supports educational activities and other initiatives that enhance the appreciation of opera.

COB has provided financial, promotional, and educational support to Chorus pro Musica's concert performances of Turandot, Faust, Cavalleria Rusticana, I Pagliacci, Otello, Macbeth, Nabucco, La Traviata, Mefistofele, Samson et Dalila and the Boston premiere of Attila.  We have presented Metropolitan Opera soprano Barbara Kilduff in recital at the Longy School of Music and were a major supporter of the Newton Symphony's "Encore Evening of Opera Favorites." COB also sponsors activities that develop audiences for opera such as pre-concert lectures and vocal recitals.

The Music Director of Concert Opera Boston was one of Boston's most visible and talented musicians, Jeffrey Rink. He was formerly the conductor of Chorus pro Musica, the Newton Symphony Orchestra, and Director of Orchestral Activities at the Longy School of Music. Recipent of the 2005 Jacopo Peri Award for outstanding contributions to the art of Opera, Mr. Rink is the newly appointed Mattie Kelly Distinguished Chair in Orchestral Music and Music Director of the Northwest Florida Symphony Orchestra.

Concert Opera

A critic in the British magazine Opera recently posed this question: “Is there a case for preferring a concert performance to a staging?” Judging by the concert operas performed by Jeffrey Rink and Chorus pro Musica with the generous sponsorship of Concert Opera Boston, the answer must be resoundingly affirmative.

Opera contains elements of song, orchestral music, and theater. Although operas are by definition staged music dramas, the numerous challenges presented by opera staging can often be detrimental to the enjoyment of, and concentration on, the music and the singing. A stage director has three options: to try to follow to the letter the (often difficult-to-realize) stage directions specified by the composer and librettist; to approach the opera abstractly, with minimalist, nonspecific settings; or to impose a concept on the work that may or may not derive from the composer and librettist’s intentions. Modern opera directors see a crisis in opera production, a result of the perception that opera is an outmoded art form that needs to be adapted in order to make it relevant to modern audiences and to keep frequent opera-goers from being bored by yet another traditional staging of an opera they have seen dozens of times. It might be argued that classic works are by definition universally relevant; it might also be considered that a large portion of any audience will be seeing a work for the first time. Productions may distract from the music and singing, either through incompetence or through seemingly irrelevant stage business. These distractions may take the form of staged overtures and interludes, extraneous characters eavesdropping in the background, a character representing the composer observing, and reacting to, the proceedings on the stage, anachronistic touches, characters suddenly addressing the audience directly, often with the house lights turned up, and dei ex machina not dreamt of by the composer. One may leave a performance remembering only the gimmicky stage effects and not the music or the performance of the musicians.

Opera performance may be said to have gone through three periods in its history: the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century dominance (one might say tyranny) of the singer, when interpolations of high notes, additions of elaborate ornamentation, transpositions, and even substituted arias were common; the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century dominance of the conductor, when reorchestration, cuts, and an emphasis on the symphonic rather than the vocal aspects of the work colored opera performance; and the current dominance of the stage director, when updatings and relocations are the norm, even when the new settings contradict the librettos and the style of the music. Singers who indulge in the first admittedly can bring exhilaration to an audience, and their virtuosic feats can raise the excitement level of any performance. Who does not thrill to the well-placed high note, even if it is not in the score? And a conductor who is clearly in control of the performance can make the difference between a routine run-through and a memorable musical event. But a poor staging can easily ruin the opera-going experience. Many performances, even well sung and conducted ones, have been undermined by the director’s imposition of his or her “concept” on the work. The delicate balance between the vocal, musical, and dramatic facets of opera is upset.

Which brings me back to concert opera. Like the experience of listening to an opera on record, concert opera allows us to create the ideal production in our mind. Unlike listening to a recording, however, concert opera provides the excitement of live music making, the connection that needs to occur between a performer and his or her audience to let an opera create the magic of which it is uniquely capable. It allows us in the audience to witness the risk taking, the immediacy, and the electricity of live theater, without the need to worry what coup de théâtre may upstage the singers at any moment.
Concert opera has a long history. The Metropolitan Opera performed opera in concert as early as its 1894–1895 season, when the second performance of Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila was performed in concert, as was the third performance, which was held on tour in Boston (the single staging at that time apparently used sets and costumes borrowed from another opera). Covent Garden, the Paris Opéra, and Barcelona’s Liceu, among many others, also perform operas in concert on occasion. The Boston Symphony has presented numerous operas in concert (or in semistagings) both at Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood, including Beethoven’s Fidelio, Richard Strauss’s Salome and Elektra, Puccini’s Tosca, Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress, and Verdi’s Falstaff. Eve Queler’s Opera Orchestra of New York, Ulrich Hartung’s New York Concert Opera, and Antony Walker’s Washington Concert Opera are just a few of many companies that exclusively perform opera in concert. For ten years Boston had its own such group in Boston Concert Opera under conductor David Stockton, a company that presented such works as Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Mascagni’s Iris, Massenet’s La Navarraise, Janacek’s Osud, Bellini’s Norma, and Granados’s Goyescas.

Concert performances are often the only financially viable way to present operas such as these, many of which are well outside the standard repertoire. Given the high cost of mounting opera productions, it is often impossible for opera companies to present operas that do not have proven box-office appeal. Outside of the occasional opera festival presentation, little-known operas, especially those that have never established a place in the standard repertoire, have little chance of being staged. Concert performances offer the opportunity for presentation of these lesser-known and rarely seen works and let modern audiences judge for themselves whether the neglect of these operas is deserved. How else would audiences have the opportunity to enjoy live performances of Massenet’s Cherubin, Donizetti’s Marino Faliero, Puccini’s Le Villi and Edgar, Verdi’s Attila and Giovanna d’Arco, Wagner’s Rienzi, Catalani’s La Wally, and Richard Strauss’s Friedenstag, and even former repertoire staples such as Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and Rossini’s Guillaume Tell that have fallen out of favor with opera companies?

Unlike operas performed in traditional opera house stagings, with the orchestra in a pit in front of the singers and the singers often far upstage, concert operas generally have the orchestra on the stage, with the singers performing in front, and the chorus behind the orchestra. Although this presents a challenge for the conductor, who must guard against overwhelming the voices with the combined forces of the orchestra and chorus, it also brings some substantial advantages. It reduces the space between the soloists and the audience, which, in addition to adding to the immediacy of the vocal sound, allows more eye contact between the singers and the audience and lets the audience see the subtlest expressions and better appreciate the nuances of the soloists’ performances.

An additional small, but significant, advantage of concert opera is that there is no curtain. In traditional proscenium theaters, the audience invariably begins to applaud at the slightest movement of the curtain, drowning out the final bars of the music and depriving the listener of both the golden moment of silence immediately following the dying off of the last notes and the concentrated sound of an audience suddenly roaring its approval. In a concert performance, the ability to see the conductor as he or she finally lowers the baton to signal the end of the performance prevents the dissipation of the ovation. Anyone who heard the applause following each act of Chorus pro Musica’s recent Mefistofele can vouch for the visceral excitement of the audience’s simultaneous outpouring of appreciation.

Even within concert opera, there is a range of possibilities for theatrical effect. Some concert operas have been performed with the singers arrayed in a row at the front of the stage, scores on music stands, singers’ eyes glued to the page, with the occasional furtive glance at the conductor. In many concert opera performances the singers have memorized their music, which allows them to make entrances and exits, to group and regroup in accordance with the requirements of the drama, and to interact with each other, using movements and expressions in addition to their voices to make theater out of notes. It is this latter format that Chorus pro Musica’s concert operas have used to present their operas, a method that combines the purity of the concert staging and the theatrical dynamic of staged opera at its best.

To answer the critic’s question posed at the beginning of this article, yes—as demonstrated by Chorus pro Musica—there often is a case for preferring opera in concert. Concert opera establishes a more intimate relationship between the audience and the performers. It lets the orchestra, chorus, and conductor become equal partners with the singers. It allows the audience to concentrate more fully on the music and the performance. It gives the audience members the freedom to create an ideal production in their imagination.

-- Michael Sims


The mission of Concert Opera Boston is to sponsor outstanding and affordable performances of concert opera in the greater Boston area. Concert Opera Boston also supports educational activities and other initiatives that enhance the appreciation of opera