The Digital Opera Orchestra

By: Megan Knapp

This year, opera has been in the headlines quite frequently with New York-native Renée Fleming singing the Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl and Russia-born, New York City-based soprano Anna Netrebko singing during the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. However, along with the positive media buzz, the opera industry has encountered some setbacks due to mismanagement, including: New York City Opera cancelling their 2013-14 season and initiating the Chapter 11 process, and even this week, the Metropolitan Opera released a statement revealing it’s dissatisfaction with the direction of their General Manager and how it will choose to allocate their resources going forward.

Another noteworthy and controversial story that recently made the New York Times details the dream of Hartford Wagner Festival director, who wants to be the only place outside of Germany to perform an epic trilogy of Wagner operas every year in West Hartford, Connecticut. What’s the catch? He wants to do it with a digital orchestra. Can he do it? Absolutely, he spent the last year painstakingly entering every single note of the score into his musical software that will transform the notes into sounds generated by a collection of sounds of orchestra instruments. Those who know these operas are outraged that musicians will not be used for the orchestra, although they have hired professional opera singers to sing and star in the production. Here’s a food analogy to bring clarity. Let’s call Iron Chef Bobby Flay and ask that he make an amazing soufflé using a famously successful recipe, but he cannot use real eggs to accomplish it. His creation may resemble a soufflé and perhaps it tastes similar to a soufflé, but it will not capture the original intent of the recipe.

On the other hand, people do have to eat, and if what Bobby produces is edible, then perhaps all is not lost. Opera is performed and viewed too seldom today for opera purists to shame him completely for his efforts. This man clearly has a passion to make this happen and has a financial plan, let’s hope his final production doesn’t make Wagner’s operas unrecognizable. How much can we hold to Wagner’s intent that the music to be played with musicians? I do agree with Dorothy Sayers in that, “…work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do.”, but musicians do have to earn a wage, like everyone else who works. And if this becomes a trend, many orchestra members will be out of jobs. How will instrumental musicians live, if their jobs are eliminated? I would hate to see instrumentalists and the music they perform to be as rare as the tree in the Dr. Seuss book The Lorax.