Washington Concert Opera: It’s All About The Music

Image courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Image courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Suppose they gave an opera where there were talented, accomplished singers, a full chorus, and a full orchestra, and the singing was with emotion and in character, with supertitles overhead, but there were no costumes, no sets, no dancing, and no action on stage.  Well, that would be called ‘concert opera’, a form of opera that is enjoyed by many fans.  And you don’t have to choose.  In the mid-Atlantic region you can have both; in addition to our many first-rate staged opera companies, there are several prominent concert opera companies in our region.  In Washington DC, we have the highly regarded Washington Concert Opera, and that is the company I will be discussing in this blog report.  I plan to report on Baltimore Concert Opera and ConcertOPERA of Philadelphia in future posts.  And full disclosure – I have not as yet attended a concert opera, thus I spend some time below examining the genre.  My bottom line is that attending concert opera is now on my opera to do list.  I think after reading my report you may as well.

You might ask why give up costumes, sets, dancing, and action?  The Washington Concert Opera (WCO) has a motto of “It’s all about the music.”  And therein lies the primary basis for this form of opera’s appeal.  The performers do not have to be concerned with their costumes and makeup, how they fit and changes; they do not have to be concerned with dancing and movement and being in the right place at the right time, or physical interaction with the other singers, and managing to control their breath while moving around.  It’s like listening to studio recordings of opera except it’s live music.  The performers can focus on the music and on their connection with the audience.  You get the singers full attention. They are placing themselves before you for your scrutiny, as well as enjoyment, and the results are immediate.  The audience must also stay engaged.  There are no do overs for either the performers or the audience. The two are in an intimate relationship for the evening.

There are other benefits as well: you will likely get to hear operas that the full opera companies can’t or won’t do; the orchestra is on the stage, not in a pit, playing a more prominent role; the tickets are likely cheaper because concert opera is less expensive to perform; and you will be better able to employ the creative role of imagination.  You will follow the story through supertitles or not, but your imagination will provide form and color to the play in your head.  You will not have to split your concentration with questions like why is Senta strangling herself on the bed instead of taking the leap off the cliffs?  You will provide your own interpretation of the opera without dealing with a director’s conception.  In a sense, it is an audio book.  Or, you can forget the story and just enjoy the live music.

I will talk more about concert opera in future posts, but let’s get back to DC’s company, Washington Concert Opera. I first became aware of this opera company a few years ago and have seen them praised in critical reviews and by word of mouth.  They employ both established singers of renown and young and upcoming ones.  Ann Midgette of the Washington Post regularly reviews WCO performances; here is a quote from one of her reviews: “Concert opera companies often end up specializing in a form of opera akin to an athletic event: The focus is turned from the drama onto the physical feat of producing the sound.  The Washington Concert Opera is a fine purveyor of this manifestation of the genre, often focusing on bel canto opera, which is not much done by major opera companies (too long, too esoteric) but which, when you get the good singers and an involved audience, can move the crowd-pleasing needle high up into the green.”

This quote was in a review of Semiramide from last year, in which the critic found the performance itself lacking in some ways, but in their second production of the season, La Favorite by Donizetti, she found much to favor.  My point here is that this company’s productions are considered significant enough to the Washington DC opera scene to be consistently covered by the Post’s chief classical music critic.

WCO’s mission statement includes “provide a secure home for rarely performed operatic masterpieces” as one of its goals.  The 2016-2017 season includes two such operas and a 30th anniversary celebration concert:

September 18        WCO 30th Anniversary Concert

Novermber 20       Jules Massenet’s Herodiade

March 5                  Ludwig van Beethoven’s Leonore

The performers for 30th Anniversary Concert, a celebration of the company’s legacy and success since its inception in 1986, will feature international opera star, Angela Meade.  Massenet's Herodiade (premiere in 1881) is based on a story by Gustav Flaubert about the historical character, Salome; librettists are Paul Milliet and Angelo Zanardini.  This opera enjoyed a good deal of staged success until Richard Strauss’ Salome (premiere in 1905) offered a version based (and sensationalized) on the biblical story of Salome as written in a play by Oscar Wilde.  Strauss’ Salome is a tense psychological portrayal and offers the provocative dance of the seven veils.  Herodiade portrays Salome in a very different, rather noble, light and offers the calmer, more seductive music of Massenet, but is still edgy due to its portrayal of a suggested romance of biblical characters.  The cast is impressive, starring Michael Fabiano, Joyce El-Khoury, and Michaela Martens.

Leonore by Beethoven may raise a few eyebrows. We are told that Beethoven wrote one opera, that one named Fidelio.  True or not?  Well, yes and no.  Ludwig worked over ten years on his sole opera, premiering his original version in 1805 named Leonore, and nine years later in 1814, premiered the final version named Fidelio.  Interesting, over that period he wrote four overtures, Leonore #1, Leonore #2, Leonore #3, and Fidelio.  I don't know which WCO will be using.  Here is a hook to try to attract the younger demographic to this one (I would like to see more young people at operas).  I read that millennials are having less sex and moving more slowly in seeking commitment and marriage.  Millennials, Leonore is for you!  The original name for the opera was a little longer -  Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe;  English translation – Leonore, or the Triumph of Marital Love.  It’s about a woman who demonstrates extraordinary commitment and bravery to save her husband, and also gives Beethoven a chance to make a political statement about freedom.  What more could you ask for?  Great singers, maybe?  They got’em: soprano Marjorie Owens, heldentenor Simon O'Neill, and soprano Celena Shafer.  As a special treat, they even throw in Alan Held, Wolf Trap Artist in Residence, and Washington National Opera’s Wotan in its recent Ring Cycle.

All performances are on Sundays at 6 pm in Lisner Auditorium on the George Washington University campus in Washington DC.  Tickets for the two operas range from $40 to $110 for single tickets and $72-200 for a season subscription covering both.  Tickets for the 30th Anniversary Concert are $15-90.  Tickets to all can be purchased online at this link, or call the box office at 202-364-5826.  Pre-performance talks are held one hour prior to the performance in Lisner. 

Because I have not attended a performance in Lisner as yet, I cannot comment on acoustics or seat selection.  I'm planning for this to change.