Opera’s Essence Is The Orchestra

The Vienna State Opera’s orchestra is fairly paid — and never has an off-night. London players aren’t so lucky

Norman Lebrecht

Why, demands my companion, why can’t it be like this in London? We are sauntering through the lobbies of the Vienna State Opera in the interval of a Nabucco revival — no headline names, no fuss, no media, just a performance of liberating intensity, the kind of show that passes in Vienna as routine.

Listen, I tell my companion, listen to where it all begins. Recall the opening chords, rising like dawn mist over a summer lake, an immersive impression, delicate in colour and immovably present. This particular sound sets the tone for every performance, assuring us that, come what may, elemental excellence will never waver. This orchestra is the custodian of house quality.

Never mind who’s conducting, never mind if a third of the players missed whatever short rehearsal was allocated for a revival, never mind if one singer or other is having an off-night, this orchestra will drive the opera securely to final curtain. And, with applause still ringing, the players will rise to their feet, shake hands with neighbours on either side and rush to catch the last tram home, knowing that half of them are back on rehearsal duty at nine the next morning.

Faces might change from one night to the next in a pool of 150 players, but the consistency of sound is guaranteed. A poor conductor might distend the tempi; he cannot affect the timbre. During weeks when two-thirds of the opera musicians are touring Japan as the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the remnant core plays on with no audible loss of quality, fortified by students of the principal players, eager to inherit. More than headline singers or directors, it is the orchestra and chorus that are the bedrock of a world-class opera house — and that is what London perpetually fails to grasp.

The first rule of UK opera governance is: trim the payroll. In recent years, the number of players in the Royal Opera House orchestra was whittled down to half the size of the Vienna pool before critics noticed a deterioration and adjustments were made. There are now a hundred players listed on the website, but you don’t need to be an HR consultant to know this is not enough to cover the normal toll of holidays, sickness, maternity and sabbaticals. The ROH orchestra is dependent on casual labour. Hang around the artists’ entrance any late afternoon and you will see freelancers emerging with London’s top rehearsal fee and no loyalty to the house. The reverse is doubly true: by relying on itinerant players the ROH sends out a message that it does not treasure the orchestra as its essence.

The attitude at English National Opera is rather worse. The ENO orchestra was reduced to chamber size, around 50, under a previous administration. It is now back to 70 players, but that’s not enough for Wagner, or for most modern music. So ENO trawls in the casuals who can’t get gigs at ROH.

The results are there to be heard. Beautifully as the ROH or ENO orchestra may play on occasion, regular attenders are aware of small imperfections, lapses of accuracy and intonation. And once people start listening out for flaws the suspension of disbelief is gone, along with the assurance that they are sitting in a world-class establishment.

This is not rocket science. Of all James Levine’s achievements in 41 years as music director of the Metropolitan Opera, the greatest is his establishment of a permanent, proud, well-paid pool of orchestra players who play as much for each other as they do for the audience. At La Scala, where an in-house academy grooms the next generation of players, the music director, Riccardo Chailly, takes the orchestra on tour as the Filarmonica della Scala. That esprit de corps, that swagger, is what gives an opera house the consistency of high performance.

Why London has refused to understand that principle is not just down to budgetary pressures. At root, it’s a question of class. In Vienna, a Philharmoniker member has social status. A principal player or concertmaster is treated in downtown cafés with respect verging on deference. Sacher’s, fully booked, will always find a table for a Philharmoniker (I can vouch for this from recent experience). The Austrian Republic requires the Vienna Philharmonic to play at presidential inaugurations. The orchestra is a premier state asset.

London’s opera houses are governed by bankers and bosses, adorned by a few relics of the landed gentry. These boards regard the orchestra and chorus as service workers, subject to contract and cuttable as required. The idea that the pit players are more important than the stars is anathema to the City’s bonus culture, risible even. When respect is denied, confidence sinks. The musicians do their best, but that’s why London can’t be like Vienna.

Which is not to say that all is as sweet as Sachertorte on the Ringstrasse. A socialist minister of culture, Thomas Drozda, has decided to interfere with the management of the opera. Drozda, a former Burgtheater executive, told the Staatsoper chief, Dominique Meyer, that he will be replaced in 2020 by a Sony record boss, Bogdan Roscic, a man with no experience in casting an opera. Meyer, an affable French-Alsatian, has over the past ten years nudged the Vienna Philharmonic towards gender equality and achieved a ticket sales record of 98.7 per cent. Roscic, confrontational to a fault, has already indicated that he wants to reduce the repertoire and, if possible, the payroll.

The Vienna Opera is entering a new age of uncertainty. Its future is taking on the authentic colour of the swirling, muddy Danube. These are testing times. Accustomed to abrupt regime change, the Philharmoniker believe they will ultimately prevail in the years ahead. One can but live in hope.

On which sombre fermata, I bring down the curtain on my Standpoint residence after five happy years. The magazine and I are moving apart, politically and creatively. It has been good to know you.

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