“For God’s sake! Look at the music!”

Article by Helen Wallace

‘The musicians field in one after the other, and there began a prolonged din of rumbling double-basses, creaking violins, barking cornets, and chirruping flutes and flageolets. From the stage came the sound of three knocks to signal the performance was about to being…’ Lights. Action.

From that moment on, Emma Bovary’s attention is focused solely on the stage and the singers. Having provided Flaubert with his scene-setting, he discards the opera orchestra. Is a pit band doomed to lurk in the shadows? When Wagner built his famous understage pit at Bayreuth, he declared triumphantly, ‘I created the invisible orchestra!’ Verdi, for once, was heartily in agreement: ‘It’s incredible,’ he wrote to his publisher Giulio Ricordi, ‘nowadays that we should tolerate seeing horrid white ties and tails, for example, between us and the costumes of Egyptians, Assyrians or Druids, and, in addition, see the whole of the orchestra which should be part of a fictitious world, almost in the middle of the stalls among the crowd as it hisses or applauds. Add to this the annoyance of seeing the tops of harps and contrabassons as well as the flailing arms of the conductor waving about in the air.’

So, what is it really like to belong to the ‘Disappeared’ in their ‘horrid white tie and tails’, to descend into the pit, and enter a life of being heard but not seen? ‘It’s incredibly claustrophobic, you feel like you are performing to a big wall. You’re really a glorified backing band,’ says one Glyndebourne veteran. ‘People are there to hear the singers and look at the production and perhaps notice the conductor. When the applause rains down, there might be only twenty per cent of it aimed at you, if you’re lucky.’ To add to the indignity of being under-appreciated, there’s the frustration of not being able to see what is going on. ‘For god’s sake look at the music!’, was the eternal cry of my school orchestra conductor. From a position at the front of the cellos, if I twisted round and craned my neck I had a free showing of the Mikado. Maybe I did miss a cue or two, but it seemed crazy to turn one’s back on a performance. How much worse for a pit musician playing for a great opera. Controversial productions and catastrophic singers come and go, sets and divas wobble, flames leap, dogs perform or run off stage. How do they stand the suspense? ‘I’d much rather watch an opera than play in it,’ said Tom Eisner who plays for the LPO and at Glyndebourne. He admits having played Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro sixty times and still not understood the plot until he sat in the audience at a dress rehearsal and was amazed by how good an opera it turned out to be. ‘It was the same with Così fan Tutte, and Peter Grimes; you languish away in the pit, wondering if anything is happening on stage. When you see it it’s wonderful, like cinema, so clear.’ Other enjoy the ride. Says a brass player in a London opera orchestra, ‘Being paid to sit and listen to the Magic Flute is a great bonus of the job.’

There are plenty more irritations, though. Singers rate high. Says one player: ‘We’re musicians, experienced at playing in an ensemble and listening to everything that is going on across a large orchestra so that everyone is exactly together, even when it’s hard to hear because of the pit acoustic. Very few singers listen to us, and many don’t really follow the conductor either, let alone the score and some can’t even read. When a singer hits a good note, they’ll hand on to it forever. When they don’t quite make it, they’re off it like a shot, leaving the orchestra for dead. And when the chorus comes in, the inaccuracy trebles…’ Says another, ‘Even if he doesn’t look at us, we just have to follow the singer, depending on who is being paid the most.’

Perhaps there are advantages in the singers and players being separated by a hefty stage: the suspicion on both sides is withering. To instrumentalists, singers are merely people with a physical deformity which allows them to make a sound we the audience want to hear. They are their instruments, but not necessarily in control of them. To singers, instrumentalists can hide behind an instrument they scrape or blow and never have to expose their naked soul, and with star singers being available for less and less time: on the international circuit the higher the profile, the later the singer will arrive. A famous tenor or conductor will turn up two or three days before opening night when much detailed rehearsing has already been done; after a few nights they will be replaced. Conductors in their turn, complain that orchestral players are constantly switching in and out of performances and they can’t recognise the orchestra from one night to another. To cap it all, there’s the extended hours – operas are far longer than concert pieces – ‘a few nights playing a Mozart opera as a second violin and you are off to the osteopath,’ says one.

But, believe it or not, there is an upside to playing in an opera orchestra too. Each work is rehearsed more thoroughly, and played many more times than is common in symphonic repertoire: players can really get under the skin of the music, which is especially rewarding in the more challenging operas of Strauss, Wagner and Berg. The orchestra do not have to travel all over the country, or to tour, making work less hectic. ‘It’s good for family life,’ says a London regular. Tom Eisner misses the adrenaline-rush of the big symphony, ‘There is often a type of nervous stimulation you get in a symphonic concert, when you are centre stage and you don’t know what the conductor is going to do next, which means you have to be on the edge of your seat and concentrate all your energies into the performance. That is rarer in a long opera run, but some players hate that stress.’

And while opera orchestras may not be centre of attention, there are seats in big opera houses when you can see nothing but. Players beware: I shall never forget one performance of Arabella for the drama in the pit. A violinist had got out of synch with his neighbour, his fingers were wandering about the fingerboard without conviction. On stage a buxom soprano momentarily stole my attention. Back to the pit, to find his viola was now on his knees. His head sunk down so his chin was resting on the scroll. Soon he was drawing circles on the floor with his bow. He rested his bow precariously on a music stand. Now, agonisingly, it began to fall. A fortissimo chord rescued the crash. He picked it up. Despair set in. he got up and walked out, leaving the instrument alone seated on his chair. Five long minutes passed, as I struggled to get to grips with the plot. But, there he was, back again with a big glass of water. He sat sipping. No more attempts to play. After the interval, the seat was empty.

I’ll never know what happens to that unfortunate violist. But the goings-on in the pit are the stuff of legend. One player remembers how the lights were dimmed on stage and in the pit, leaving them in almost total darkness for several minutes by Abbado never hesitated, and the band played on. Recently, at Covent Garden, another violinist put his bow down only to find it had slipped between the floor boards. Falling scenery, flying singers and props are hazards of the job. On one staging of Moses and Aron a camel teetered down a sharply raked stage causing the whole orchestra to flee the pit. Furtive non-musical activity is rehearsed to perfection: entranced by the singers, who notices the absence of a couple of brass players in Così fan Tutte, or the whole string section remove themselves for Act 2 of Tippett’s King Priam? ‘After all,’ said a seasoned trumpeter, ‘It’s ten minutes before I play a note in Pelleas. And in Parsifal you might have 40 minutes off and then suddenly have to come in with a pianissimo solo. Of course, we do slip in and out during the performance.’ This is a flexibility denied players in Holland Park!

But before anything imagines that the orchestra before you tonight are a bunch of shrinking violets busy at work on their mobile phones moving shares around, playing cards or ducking out for a quick pint, it’s worth recalling that the opera orchestra used to be the only orchestra in town. The symphony itself began life as an overture to an opera; the symphony orchestra we know today is only a pit band on the loose and at large before the advent of symphonic societies, concerts tended to be put on by regional opera orchestras. Toscanini would conduct concerts in La Scala, just as conductors work with the Vienna Philharmonic today on operas and symphonies. This venerable institution has never dropped its combined role as a symphonic and opera orchestra, and in cities like Budapest and Bucarest today, many concerts still take place in the opera house. Much of the repertoire we think of a symphonic, such as Mahler’s choral symphonies, or the Verdi Requiem, were performed originally by combinations of opera and choral societies. Far from loitering in the shadows, the Vienna, the Dresden Staatskappelle and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra are considered to be the finest in the world. And they need to be. For from the beginning of the nineteenth century, composers began to expand and demand more from the orchestra, giving it an interpretative function and pushing it into the aural foreground of the production. It was Wagner himself, with Tristan, who shifted the intensification of expression away from the voice and into the orchestra. Some might say Strauss threatened his singers and vocal lines with the sophistication, volume and potency of his orchestral scores. Later in the century, in Britten’s Billy Budd, the key moment in the opera plot, where Captain Vere decides the fate of Billy, is played out by the orchestra, not the singers, in that solemn row of agonisingly slow chords.

Since the war, composers have sought to bring the benighted musicians into the limelight. The tradition, perhaps begun by Mozart’s flautist in Die Zauberflöte, of instrumentalists taking on characters has seen an unprecedented flowering. In Britten’s church parables the musicians are integral to the drama, and even bring on the props themselves, while Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King and Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy both attempt to break down the barriers between singing and playing performers. Stockhausen put the musicians in the spotlight in his Harlekin for a dancing clarinettist, and Sirius, a spectacle for four musicians who arrive as visitors from outer space to teach and inspire their earthly audience. Donnerstag, from his opera cycle Licht, concerns the supreme musician who brings a cosmic message to earth. The character Michael’s journey is depicted by a trumpeter, and the whole act becomes a trumpet concerto. Samstag, has a scene with a flute soloist and six percussionists with instruments strapped to their bodies and a piece for wind ensemble and arrayed on a vertical frame.

In a late twentieth century authentic twist the orchestra at Drottningholm’s summer opera festival in Sweden dress up in the court clothes of the day, entering into the classical period of the operas being played out before them. While the instrumentalists tonight may not be in costume, strapped to a rack or hanging from the trees, they are arrayed before you in the traditional Eighteenth century mode, and can be both heard and seen. Fear not you will miss their finest moments, and when the hour is nigh for the bestowing of applause, reserve at least a third of it for the trusty band.