What makes a great opera house? It starts with the orchestra

What makes a great opera house? It starts with the orchestra


norman lebrecht

March 30, 2017

In my final monthly essay for Standpoint magazine – I am off to sunnier pastures – I write about how important the orchestra is to maintaining standards in an opera house.

It’s something the British are prone to forget:

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…

America is no better, as shown by Peter Gelb’s attack on the Met orchestra in the last contract negotiations:

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.

So why do we keep on undervaluing opera house orchestras? And why is Vienna getting worried?

Read the full essay here.



  • Petros Linardos says:

    I don’t know whether things have changed, but as a student in Vienna in the early 80s I found the playing of the Vienna State Opera inconsistent. On good days it was wonderful, the best days were hard to beat. The 1985 Boheme under Carlos Kleiber has been one of the high points of my life. Yet to my then young ears, repertoire performances often sounded very bland, unsynchronized and outright mediocre. Relatively consistent timbre was not enough. I could say the same about VPO concerts, even though those were always conducted by famous conductors.

    • Ruben Greenberg says:

      I should think that is because they seldom rehearse. From what I’ve understood, they only rehearse when there’s a new production.

  • Peter says:

    Doesn’t Vienna play about twice the number of performances per season than the Met orchestra?
    The Met should of course have a top notch orchestra and pay them accordingly, but that they are in fact a part time and underutilized orchestra makes the economics more difficult. (ducking for shit storm)

    • Michael Marcus says:

      The Met is dark only one day a week in season So their fine orchestra is busy enough thank you

    • MacroV says:

      The MET orchestra is incredibly busy from mid-September to about mid-May. And remember, they don’t have a double orchestra like Vienna (though a lot of permanent subs so in practice perhaps they do). So on a per-service basis I suspect they play as much as or more than the Vienna players.

      Every time a MET principal leaves for a symphony job, once we get over Norman’s predictable “What’s wrong at the MET/with Gelb?” it comes down to “operas are long, life is short.”

  • Jon H says:

    The quality of the singing and conducting is very important. Professional musicians can adjust and plan accordingly for a long night, but it’s supporting the singer – and if the conductor doesn’t know what to do with it… The purpose of opera isn’t to stare at a set either.

    • Jon H says:

      That said – the Vienna Phil has something special when it comes to Tristan and most of the Strauss operas that almost no one else can touch.

  • Jimmy says:

    I agree with the sentiment of the article but it is scant on detail.

    The standard of the orchestra at ROH has worsened over the past year or two. I saw Der Rosenkavalier twice and compared to some of the German bands it was lagging behind. Only recently in Meistersinger has there been a return to form. Many of the ROH musicians are overworked and underpaid as well as taking extra work themselves in other bands. Bands like the Dresden Staatskapelle and Berlin Staatskapelle excel in symphonic and operatic work as well. They are in demand in both genres and are truly world class bands. Funding is a big issue that needs to be addressed. I am unsure how many times the writer has been to the Met to hear the band live recently?

    • SC says:

      The ROH brass section is getting worse and worse. Apparently nothing can be done, as if regular re-auditions were to be introduced (which could help) the union would fight.

    • Anon says:

      Agreed on ROH. Principal cello (one of them) was a major issue for years, but they refuse to put themselves in a position to do anything about it which isn’t good for their reputation nor for the pleasure of the ticket buyers and the funders. The brass, playing aside, seem to think that coming and going in the most indiscreet fashion during the opera, and chatting to one another, is somehow acceptable.

      As for the idea that ROH musicians are “overworked and underpaid”, this is nonsense. The ROH players are the best paid employed orchestral musicians in the UK in terms of annual salary. They also work the fewest number of sessions for that salary, making them definitely the best paid.
      A good orchestra is certainly a important for the production of high-level opera. I’d also like an orchestra who enjoyed doing it enough that they could be bothered staying an extra thirty seconds to wait for the final curtain to fall, rather than rudely being seen by most of the audience to be cleaning instruments, putting them away in cases, putting on their coats, slinging bags over their shoulders, and walking out during the applause. The chorus don’t start to get undressed on stage and leave a fraction early, and why the musicians get away with such abjectly rude behaviour is beyond me.

  • Nick says:

    As for the main point made above, I agree. It matters little what is going on on stage visually and/or vocally unless there is an excellent orchestra in the pit. I recall that it was vacant time in the schedule of the old Scottish National Orchestra which enabled Alexander Gibson to use it as the basis of his new Scottish Opera. And what a base! Few companies then could assemble such marvellous forces in the pit and it was undoubtedly one of the vital keys to the company’s many early successes. Those attending the company’s Otello, Boris, Grimes, The Ring, Falstaff, Pelleas, The Trojans, Fidelio, Rosenkavalier, Tristan and others were indeed hugely privileged. When the SNO became too busy with concert work, Scottish Opera helped found the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, another splendid ensemble even in its first years. Sadly by then the company had begun to slide – but through no fault of its orchestras.

  • Nardo Poy says:

    Sorry, Peter. You’ve got it backwards. No opera orchestra in the world works as hard as the Met Orchestra. Conductors seem quite surprised and in awe of the fact that we would have a rehearsal, for instance, in the morning for Othello and then in the evening have a performance of Die Frau Ohne Schatten. Vienna does not have as brutal a schedule. And the Met does not have relief players come in for the last acts of a Wagner opera the way that opera orchestras in Germany and Vienna do. We play the entire opera from start to finish.