Opera in Recital
Guest post by Joanna Harries
One of the many inexplicable snobberies I picked up from music college was that a recital should only ever include song and Lieder. Perhaps one aria – a party piece, or an audience favourite – was permissible as an encore, but otherwise opera was written for an orchestra. Performing it with piano was somehow second-rate.
It wasn’t until I’d left college that I realised how ridiculous this idea that “it’s not opera unless there’s an orchestra” is. After all, every singer spends far more of their life working with a pianist than an orchestra. Coachings, auditions, opera scenes – even the majority of rehearsals for full scale orchestral productions take place with piano. And full blown theatrical productions are expensive to put on. It’s simply not always feasible. Add to that all the amazing operatic repertoire that never gets an outing in the theatre for one reason or another and there’s quite simply no compelling reason not to perform opera in recital.
Don’t get me wrong – I love artsong and Lieder. I’m a massive Brahms fan, I love both the Schumanns, and I’ve spent the lockdowns pouring over collections of Rebecca Clarke and Wilhelm Stenhammar. I’ll never be short on material – but I wondered why I was so assiduously segregating opera and artsong in my programming. Were my college mentors right? Is opera in recital pointless?
Pianist Ashley Beauchamp certainly doesn’t think so. “Performing opera in recital is an amazing opportunity to strip the story-telling and music back to its most simple form,” he tells me. “It allows us to present opera in such an intimate way, and I find that audiences respond positively to that.”
We’re rehearsing for our upcoming recital for Opera Live @ Home on 30th March and, as the name suggests, it’s a full programme of opera. The series began in 2020 during the pandemic to bring opera live into people’s homes via Zoom. Each month a singer/pianist duo perform a carefully chosen selection of arias, followed by a Q&A, where the audience can ask any questions they like. In these most distanced of times, it’s a very intimate way to share music.
In fact, Ash and I have performed opera to all sorts of different audiences over the years. We first met performing opera in a recital at Pushkin House – repertoire from Russian operas that never get staged in the UK. And our last gig before the pandemic (on the very day the theatres closed) was to young children at the Royal Opera House’s “Opera Dots”. There is nothing like singing Hansel and Gretel to a room of five-year-olds to remind you what’s important in opera. You don’t need the set, costumes or indeed orchestra to tell a musical story.
The idea that performing opera in recital could reach a wider audience isn’t new. In 1884 a letter in the Musical Times called for a “Music for the People”:
“At present we cannot with the best intentions expect the working classes to attend opera or expensive Concerts far away from their homes…let operas in recital and chamber music be given, with piano and American organ as ground work; for I maintain that it is in recital that you can best appreciate opera works, from a purely musical point of view.”
The author of this letter – a mysterious O.L. – proposed they should “write to the mayor of every town throughout the United Kingdom” to initiate these regional opera recitals. (One to suggest to Oliver Dowden, perhaps…?) I wonder what O.L. would have thought of the Zoom recital – a phenomenon that can reach more audiences than ever before, all over the world?
Opera, but not as you know it
So how does performing opera in recital compare to the stage?
Well, from a singer’s point of view, working with the right pianist is key. Some pianists instinctively click with the drama – and that’s important, because they’re telling that character’s story as much as you are. In fact, you’re no longer a singer performing “over” an orchestra – you’re in duet with the pianist. The hierarchy is completely different from performing on stage – you are both the conductor; it’s a collaboration.
Unlike with song, pianists have the added responsibility of embodying an entire orchestra. “The challenge of playing opera in a recital is that the audience is completely reliant on the pianist to create the sound-world of the piece,” says Ash. “You’re the only other thing that the singer has with them in the room to help set the scene.”
I asked Ash how performing opera compares to Lieder: “The most obvious similarity is that, ultimately, we are trying to tell a story through music, and it can feel like you’ve travelled as far through a three minute song as through a three hour opera! The crucial difference with opera is that the piano part I’m playing from is a reduction of the orchestral full score. These reductions are very often a complete minefield – they can be full of mistakes, crammed with too many notes or even missing entire chunks of important material. My job is to be as faithful as possible to the full score – recreating the music in the same way that an orchestra would in performance.”
There are challenges for the singer too. In some ways, it’s more tiring – on stage, even the largest roles don’t sing all their big arias back to back! So you have to programme strategically. You’re also in charge of the audience’s emotional journey through the evening, instead of the composer or librettist – so you have to think about the pace of the drama too. In an opera you’re usually playing one character all night, but in recital, you’re an entirely new character in an entirely new scene every five minutes.
“An aria that appears at the very climax of a three hour opera can be difficult to present in middle of a recital, sandwiched between very different repertoire,” adds Ash. “We have to learn how to present these arias in isolation, without the benefit of all the contextual information that we enjoy in a staged performance.”
Colour and character
But for all the challenges, there is so much to be gained.
For one thing, it makes me a better singer – I’m sure of it. Not relying on set, costumes, staging means that you really focus on delivering the drama and finding out who that character really is. You’re unencumbered by a particular director’s vision or an exact staging you have to fulfil. You’re also able to play with vocal colour and dynamics in a way that isn’t always possible onstage. In many ways it’s the purest form of musical storytelling.
Ash finds he learns from performing opera too: “Playing opera has definitely informed how I approach solo music. I enjoy trying to imagine what instrument might be playing at any given time. Is that gorgeous left-hand melody a cello, or a bassoon? Are those chord in the right-hand a full string section, or perhaps brass? It definitely helps me to find colours in my playing.”
With our recital fast approaching, I ask Ash what his favourite and least favourite opera repertoire is from the pianist’s perspective. “I have a love/hate relationship with Handel, because I love the music but I hate how hard his fiendish string writing can be for the piano!” he admits. (We are performing Handel’s sublime ‘As with rosy steps’ from Theodora, but luckily I think I’ve been fairly kind with this one, and Ash captures the caressing parallel thirds in the upper strings beautifully.) “French opera scores seem to always be full of mistakes, so I have to spend so much extra time preparing them,” he continues. “My favourite opera to play is anything by Britten – I absolutely adore his operas, and would happily play them forever.”
For myself, it’s not so much any particular composer or aria I love, but the joy and challenge of the kaleidoscope of characters, emotions and stories I get to tell, all in one night.
We’ll also be including Mozart, Bellini, Massenet and Walton arias and – just to buck the trend, we might even throw in an actual song as an encore…
Joanna Harries and Ashley Beauchamp perform for Opera Live @ Home on Tuesday 30th March 2021 at 7:30pm; also available on-demand for 30 days for ticket holders. Tickets: operaliveathome.co.uk
Joanna Harries is a mezzo-soprano from South Wales who studied Cambridge University and went on to train at the Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (Alexander Gibson Opera Studio). She has performed with Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera, Grange Park Opera, Opera Holland Park and Longborough Festival Opera, and her roles stretch from the seventeenth to twenty-first century.