As Met deadline looms, could opera survive without a orchestra?

As Met deadline looms, could opera survive without a orchestra?


norman lebrecht

August 17, 2014

Today is the Met’s deadline for reaching a wage agreement with musicians, or locking them out.

Dr Gerald Stein, a Chicago psychotherapist and contributor, is a passionate, lifelong concertgoer. He is involved with music and musicians in his community. But Dr Stein has some chilling fears about the replaceability of the orchestra in the immediate technological future.

We don’t share his conclusions, but the advance of robotic music needs to be addressed and the case for live music vigorously restated. Here’s Dr Stein’s sample scenario. Read the full text here.

met hornists


Imagine a generous donor purchasing loudspeakers, the computer, musical notation software, and the (automated Vienna Symphonic Library (one time expenses) for a small community with a decent auditorium, thus enabling staged operas. There exists a plethora of talented young singers and competent conductors of high school, college ensembles, and community orchestras. We are not talking James Levine or Riccardo Muti here, of course.

A digital orchestra reduces costs after the original outlay by our hypothetical donor. Goldstein’s long effort to enter the notes into the software for his “Ring cycle,” once done, needn’t be done again. Of course, he would have to be willing to sell his work product for an affordable price or simply give it away. Alternatively, several small communities could band together to pay whatever price Mr. Goldstein would set, or hire someone to do the job of entering the notes for an agreed upon opera. From that point, it could be widely and cheaply shared among them, as digital music commonly is today.

The cost of such an arrangement would be far less than hiring an orchestra and paying a major conductor tens of thousands of dollars per performance. Still, the result would be both poorer and different, at least until robots and androids are far more developed than they are now; replacements, that is, for some or all of the musicians!

Did I say robots and androids? The latter are robots designed to resemble humans. I’ll get to androids in a moment. Nonetheless, we are already in the world of the “second machine age.” Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, two MIT professors, elaborate in their book, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.


Your thoughts, please?


  • Nick says:

    A total and horrific fantasy! It will never happen! I can understand the reasoning. A master file of every opera that conductors just tweak before they start rehearsing. But there is a vast number of small nuances that conductors bring to opera in addition to tempi, phrasing, colour, dynamics etc. that can be conveyed relatively quickly in rehearsal but which would take weeks to programme a computer. Can anyone seriously imagine any conductor taking the time needed to programme his interpretation of an entire opera? Or even wanting to? Absolute nuts!

    Besides, a key element of opera is in the interaction between stage and pit. No one performance of an opera is identical to the next. Then there are the singers. They would have to synchronise their vocal production to pre-exisiting precise tempi and changes of tempi. That puts them into a ghastly straightjacket unable to breathe or make subtle changes to their performance.

    The idea reminds me of an amusing piece in the Economist magazine from a few decades ago. It purported to be a work study expert’s assessment of symphony orchestras. It started with the notion that there were too many musicians playing the same notes. Use of microphones and discreet amplification could reduce string sections to at most one desk apiece, thereby saving the cost of up to 60 jobs! It observed that there was far too much repetition of notes and themes. So composers should be instructed to cut all repetition. And so on . . . Fun, but bumkum!

  • Gill says:

    The frightening thing here is the almost accepted view that the orchestra is less important than the singers. Why not have the orchestra and android singers ( sometimes that’s what it feels like you are watching anyway !! )
    Seriously though – it is an insult to the highly skilled players in a top orchestra to suggest their contribution is any less important and necessary than the singers. Indeed a band could make a singer look really stupid if it wanted to. Furthermore – and I speak here as someone in the business – if really top artists took fees that are a little more reasonable then we could probably afford the orchestra more. While I accept skill and stardom rightly commands a certain fee – the truth is, rather like footballers, top opera stars get paid fees that are way over the top. Fifteen performances at £10k a show ?? Well why not take £50k instead of £150k and give the other £100k to keep the orchestra alive ????
    Just a thought 🙂

  • johnc says:

    No need to add any comments to Nicks post above, a score generated by a computer hast no SOUL !!!!!!!

  • Anne says:

    Sounds to me like one of those “X will put Y out of business” arguments that we’ve been hearing for decades about films, radio, television, LPs, cassettes, video recorders and, most recently, internet downloading.

    My guess is that, yes, there will be scope for the new technology, but it will largely be in addition to, rather than instead of, what we already enjoy.

  • Gerald Stein says:

    I agree that current technology is inadequate. But the future, as described in the full text, holds other possibilities. Mr. Lebrecht’s link to the full text will allow you to see what we MIGHT have in store. No certainty here.

  • mr oakmount says:

    The sad truth is, a friend of mine took one of his colleagues to the opera (his first time). At the end of the applause, the conductor came up in front of the curtain and the colleague asked, “Who’s he?” He had naturally assumed that the sound of the orchestra had come from a playback recording.

  • Neil McGowan says:

    Your thoughts, please?

    My first thought was “No!”.

    Then my second thought was “What the hell???”

    And then my final thought was “Jesus H Christ, no!”

    Why even bother with the simulacrum of a “live” performance at all? Why even call it “music” – with no musicians? Why not just go home and slap on a record of Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge, pull down the shutters, and convert the Met into luxury penthouse apartments for its former patrons?

    They like “good old traditions” at the Met, so perhaps its time to revive one to accompany their performances?

  • Neil McGowan says:

    My klutz-like ability with html code resulted in this delightful clip of ‘mechanised musical performance” disappearing from the final line:

  • GEll says:

    It will happen. Even worse, Callas, Tebaldi, and you name it will be digitally and faithfully resuscitated down to the last wrinkle and wobble. Even these imperfections will be ironed out. Dream casts will be assembled at will so that the danger and risk of live performance are removed once and for all. And not just for vocalists but instrumentalists too. Cortot and Rubinstein will visit out concert halls once again. Etc.

  • George Atwell says:

    On the contrary, I, and others have over the years, have input into a computer various movie scores, Classical works, etc. with much more detail, feel, real “emotion” than the recordings or movie soundtracks we were referencing. If you simply go to this site and listen for a while, it is should convince anyone that this is possible.

    Remember, each note is carefully and artistically played into the computer by a talented musician, playing in the style of the instrument being emulated, not like playing a keyboard. By carefully working out the balances, articulations, phrasing, etc. details that usually get lost in the mix are able to be heard for the first time! With a conductor guiding the tempo, all you need is a person “tapping” (on a keyboard, drum pad, or any MIDI device) to the beat and the “orchestra” and singers are in perfect sync. In the future ((even now available), the computer will simply follow the conductor’s stick using a triangulation laser system.
    In addition, the speaker arrays can be set up to exactly reproduce the seating arrangement of the orchestra, taking into consideration the various amounts of “bleed” each section gets from the other instruments (which is important, since instruments do not play in their own “vacuum” of space). One great advantage also is the ability to “place” the orchestra into any number of resonant and famous concert hall acoustic spaces (Berlin, Amsterdam, Vienna, etc.) to accommodate for the dry or dead acoustics of many performing spaces. Whether this “should” be done or not is another question….the fact that it CAN be done is not an issue even now, and in the future only more so.

  • Bill says:

    A or an orchestra?

  • William Safford says:

    We already see this happening.

    We see the prelude to this on Broadway, with the replacement of live musicians with synthesizers. In many cases, the musicians, live or synthesized, are not even in the theater; the music is piped in from another room.

    We see entire pop music tours that are pre-recorded and lip synched.

    (This is why I eschew Broadway and do not attend such pop concerts.)

    It’s just a matter of time until the Hartford attempt actually comes to fruition somewhere.

  • SVM says:

    Alas, mechanically reproduced music is already widely utilised in theatre (even when the production is making a *profit*, and so can eminently afford to engage live musicians), but I do not think it would be tenable in opera. One thing that a machine cannot do is compensate for slips — a good pit orchestra with a good conductor will not only be able to play the music in front of them, but also react to what the singer is doing, and, crucially, adjust if he/she comes in early/misses an entry/forgets a line/takes longer to cross the stage than anticipated/&c. Most of the time, the orchestra is so good at adjusting that nobody in the audience notices that anything went awry. It is not unlike what we pianists have to do when accompanying another instrumentalist or a singer, except that it is on a far larger, more complex scale. Let us hope that, like any serious singer or conductor, the directors, funders, and promoters will continue to fully appreciate the value of a good live orchestra, and respect the immense skill of its players.

  • Pamela Brown says:

    No, no, no! That would be awful…

    But no worry. I am playing the flute for smooth negotiations for the Met. That always helps. 🙂

  • Lewes says:

    This story has nothing at all to do with the Metropolitan Opera.

    • Michael says:

      It’s just another opportunity to reinforce the constant one-sided attacks on Peter Gelb, especially when there is actually no news about the Met to report – see another in today’s “After the deadline, silence at the Met”. NO news is NO news. During years of union negotiation, the most important lesson I learned is that the “facts” are never black or white: settlement invariably involves compromise and that compromise is made harder when bystanders stoke the fires with blanket attacks on one of the sides.

  • Nathan Lichtwar says:

    I agree as been said before me we are not talking Met Opera… no union will pass an 802 picket line…

  • Fourth Norn says:

    Robotic music? It’s here already in the works of Philip Glass et al. Let the robots ‘listen’ to it I say; will help to keep their circuits clear.

  • william osborne says:

    The key isn’t to digitize orchestral accompaniments of old operas, but to create new forms of music theater using modern technology. Opera is a dead genre. When was the last work written that entered the standard rep? Peter Grimes, 69 years ago? Time to give up the necrophilia and move on,

    • Neil McGowan says:

      William, greatly as I love your perceptive contributions, I must beg leave to differ here!

      At least half of Philip Glass’s operas have gone into the mainstream repertory. Some have fared better than others (primarily depending on the quality of the libretto – some are really stagnant, such as Satyagraha and Einstein. For Akhnaten he turned to professional librettists, and the result is successful music theatre.)

      Your homeland supplies us too with the works of John Adams – which are performed all over the world in many different productions. It’s too early to tell which will “stick” in the repertoire – but NIXON and DR ATOMIC are both fine pieces which have developed the musical theatre genre (especially in the field of word-setting, in Dr Atomic – outstanding!) while keeping opera socially relevant.

      Remainining in the USA, Jake Heggie’s work continues to be performed all over. I can’t understand why Americans themselves pull the legs from under fine works like THE MEDIUM, VANESSA, ANTHONY & CLEOPATRA, and THE CRUCIBLE? Meanwhile CANDIDE gets played all over the world, and SWEENEY TODD is increasingly staged by opera companies (I wish I could say the same for PACIFIC OVERTURES).

      Europe hasn’t been so enterprising in marketing and producing its new operas – which doesn’t mean there haven’t been any! THE KING GOES FORTH TO FRANCE had a whole cluster of new productions when it first appeared, and continues to attract new productions.

      I wish there were more takers for Birtwistle’s works. THE MINOTAUR is almost standard rep now, and there’s little stopping chamber-size pieces like YAN TAN TETHERA from achieving more productions. Although I hesitate to reach back as far as Tippett, your cast-down glove of “Peter Grimes” is hardly fair. Most of the Tippett operas (despite their wonky librettos) have continued to pop up in European repertoire lists – KING PRIAM is well established (his best libretto, of course), and even the vegetarian nutburger philosophy of THE MIDSUMMER MARRIAGE hasn’t hampered its popularity.

      Now surely you won’t say that A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM isn’t one of the most successful of C20th operas? It’s being produced everywhere from here in Moscow (where I worked on it just last year) through to Brazil.

      I would certainly agree with you that we need more new works! But the genre of opera is doing extremely well, in locations where it is given the opportunity to grow and thrive. :)))

      • william osborne says:

        We have no objective measure for determining what a great and lasting opera might be. Historically, we might define it as an opera whose central figure becomes an iconic figure of the genre. I think of characters like Don Giovani, Orfeo, Lenore, Tosca, Siegfried, Salome, Elektra, Madam Butterfly, Wozzeck, Lulu, Peter Grimes, Falstaff, Borís Godunóv, Norma, Lucia, and Othello, to name a few. What operas do we have since 1950 that have added iconic operatic figures such as these to the genre?

        • Neil McGowan says:

          Well, William – many of the lead characters you mention had extensive public profiles long before they became operatic heroes :)) Don Juan was a popular comic play at fairgrounds and festivals for many hundreds of years. Orphic myth and legend predates Christianity. Belasco’s play of Madam Butterfly predated Puccini’s opera, and itself was rooted in an older tradition that goes back to Inkle & Yarico, and even thence to Dido and Aeneas… it’s all the same story 🙂 Wozzeck is based on Woyzeck. I am not sure opera can lay claim to having made all these folks famous? :)) Quite the opposite – they were famous, and then went into the operatic canon too 🙂

          The fact that opera in the C20th continued to write about classical stories – the Trojan Wars, Orpheus, Shakespeare – doesn’t seem entirely reprehensible to me, nor is it proof of an ossified medium :))

          BTW, I take this opportunity to mention LE GRAND MACABRE, which is a real “hit” repertoire piece of the late C20th and early C21st :))

          • william osborne says:

            Just to clarify my perspective, yes, previously known figures but also made iconic within the operatic genre itself. No one, for example, has yet made Lear or Macbeth into an iconic operatic figure. It seems to me that the creation of such iconic *operatic* figures is what establishes an opera as truly great.

  • Nick says:

    Well, the deadline came and went several hours ago without being extended. Hopefully this is a good sign and that agreement is close. But it’s yet another example of Gelb crying wolf far too often. The man is hopelessly inexperienced to lead a company like the Met.

    • Sylvia Danburg Volpe says:

      It was just another stunt by Peter to rattle the cages of the members of Local 802. I remember when my father in law Joe fired one of the extras during the performance of War and Peace for deliberately jumping into the orchestra pit. I actually was the one who witnesed this so I guess I sealed the deal. Was that the right answer PJ.