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Live Opera Concerts versus Stage Production

When someone says that they like listening to opera, what exactly are they talking about? Do they listen to entire productions from beginning to end, as if they were watching a live performance? Or just a playlist of their favorite arias?

And if we’re “only” listening to the music, are we really experiencing opera in its entirety? After all, opera was first conceived as a genre of dramatic acting, using music as a means to heighten the emotional impact. Can you even call it “opera” outside the context of a stage production?

Indeed, admired by the general population only casually acquainted with opera, there is a roster of famous “opera singers” who only perform concerts and do not participate in stage productions. Sometimes this sub-genre is referred to as operatic pop or “popera” or classical crossover. The artists that perform these concerts are the likes of Josh Grobin, Sara Brightman, and of course, Andrea Bocelli.

Andrea Bocelli, outdoors with a microphone

Andrea Bocelli has certainly found a unique position in this debate—he is an astonishingly successful singer, selling over 80 million records. His Sacred Arias album is the best-selling solo classical crossover album of all time, selling over 5 million copies.

But these “crossover artists” are inevitably the subject of a certain amount of scorn from classically trained singers. It’s one thing if Luciano Pavarotti wants to record duets with Sting, U2, or Mariah Carey. That’s considered “expanding your audience.” The crossover artists, on the other hand, are seen as opportunists that don’t sufficiently respect the art form, while profiting from it at the same time. (Even if Pavarotti himself once recorded a duet with Bocelli.)

So from the layman’s perspective, Bocelli may be just as much an “opera singer” as Pavarotti. It’s not hard to imagine how that could offend classically trained opera professionals who have spent their entire careers training their instrument to project without amplification to fill a theater. Meanwhile, crossover singers fill 50,000 capacity stadiums accompanied by enormous sound systems and over-wrought orchestral arrangements. They make more profit with less effort, is the general reproach.

More likely, it’s aggressive marketing and the popular perception that are the major irritants, rather than Bocelli himself. Bocelli is the king of his own quite prosperous realm; he doesn’t need the endorsement of opera critics, because he gets plenty of that from mainstream media. It’s just that his form of the art sometimes overshadows the territory of a different class of artist, and they tend to resent that a bit. Justifiable? Maybe so.

Domingo, Carreras, and Pavarotti. The Three Tenors… with three microphones.

Live Opera Concerts

Still, concerts of opera arias by classically trained singers are also very popular. Think of The Three Tenors Concerts, for example. During the final years of his career, Pavarotti performed concerts almost exclusively over stage productions. His repertoire changed, too, including more and more songs that were outside of opera arias, including Neapolitan folk songs, Christmas songs, and yes, popular music. Caruso, written by Italian pop musician Lucio Dalla, was one of classical crossovers all-time greatest hits.

It’s a real treat once in a while when you have the opportunity to listen to opera voices in concert as they are intended to be enjoyed. That’s to say, in a theater, with a live orchestra on stage, and without artificial amplification.

If you’re in South Florida this December, Palm Beach Opera presents a unique concert of selected arias and Broadway favorites for one night only. Live, with a full orchestra, no microphones. For many, this represents the best of all worlds. The listener can focus on the music itself without the “intrusion” of staging or acting. The singers, too, can concentrate only on their vocal output rather than hitting their marks, wielding their props, and timing their interactions with other actors on stage.

A properly trained voice can fill a theater without amplification, even with a full orchestra playing on stage. (Pictured: Nadine Sierra)

Concerts simply offer another way to enjoy the music, and in the end, perhaps it’s a matter of personal tastes. So which do you prefer, the simple satisfaction of beautiful arias, or the more complex pleasures of a full production? Let us know in the comments below!

  • I love both. However, the full opera production offers so much more that the opera concert – e.g. acting, costumes, staging, artistic direction, et cetera.

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