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Opera brings a particular challenge that isn’t often found in an orchestra that plays symphonic repertoire. Concert programmes by symphony orchestras are usually only performed once or twice, and with less rehearsal time than can be comfortable, especially if you’ve never played the repertoire before. It leads to performances where your mind is very firmly concentrated on what you are doing, and usually at the end of the concert I think it would be nice to perform that again now, as I know how it feels in performance!

However, operas are usually on for a run of anywhere between 5 and 18 performances, depending on the season and the show. So when I was asked recently “Are you lost in the music – or wondering if you left the gas on?” I thought it was an interesting one to answer.

Of course, there’s the old adage that audiences have only seen the show once (usually!) so even if we’ve done it ad infinitum we have to find some way of making it sound fresh, as if we were performing it for the first time. It’s not as easy as that though; at the end of a long tour it can be particularly difficult to keep your concentration. A colleague of mine once came in rather loudly with a spare – a spare is a note in the wrong place – when I asked him afterwards what had happened, he admitted that he had been thinking about what size battery he needed for his camping torch, which had run out the previous night.

All sorts of things can help avoid a loss of concentration;

  • a conductor who is always engaged in what he or she is doing, no matter what performance number they are on.
  • I personally like when performances aren’t exactly the same, so there is absolutely no chance of playing on autopilot, because something might be different. There was a conductor who performed a run of Wagner operas that I played for that every performance would put in the tiniest of rubatos at a particular point in a first violin moment; every week somebody would miss it, and he would smile and the next week there it was again. The week after everybody nailed it we got to the moment, I looked up expectantly and he left it out – went straight through instead, and then winked at us.
  • An affinity for the particular show you’re playing – if you like the opera, it helps a great deal!
  • Different things to concentrate on. I find that over the course of a 4 hour opera (sometimes longer) that it can help in maintaining concentration if you are focussing on one particular thing that performance, perhaps intonation, playing well with your desk partner, creating the right sort of sound.

I have to admit there have been moments in the past that I’ve caught myself thinking about what to have for dinner, or dreaming slightly about the next caffeine intake. There does come a point, particularly in long operas, when the brain just goes “No, I’ve had enough” and shuts down for a while. Hopefully it will happen at a time when your desk partner is focussed and you can rely on their help for a while until you get your second wind. Otherwise, putting in an embarrassingly loud spare can help concentrate the mind remarkably quickly!

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