Opera isn’t just for the opera stage. Symphony orchestras in the United States and abroad have long performed operatic overtures and excerpts, and they are increasingly presenting full-length versions of works in the form. Complete concert performances provide a way to shake up programs artistically and offer an approach to opera that has its own distinctive appeal.

“Sometimes [concert stagings] are the best ways of seeing an opera, because the singers are focused on one of the things they do very well, which is sing, and the music is doing what it is supposed to be doing, and the most amazing part is that if it all goes well, your imagination is inventing everything else,” said director Doug Fitch, who has overseen semi-staged operatic performances by the New York Philharmonic and National Symphony Orchestra, among others.

Orchestras have long made works with significant vocal components — such as Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem Mass (which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will perform Nov. 8-10 under Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti) or some of the symphonies by Gustav Mahler — key parts of their repertoire. F. Paul Driscoll, editor-in-chief of the magazine Opera News, sees concert performances of opera as “a natural extension” of those presentations. Like live-to-picture presentations of film scores, which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and other ensembles have introduced to lure new audiences, concert performances of opera are another way to inject visual and storytelling elements into their programming.

“It’s a way of marketing a product in a classical idiom that has narrative,” Driscoll said. “If you do Beethoven’s Third Symphony, it doesn’t necessarily have a story. But [with these kind of presentations] you have something that engages people on a narrative level, which opera has always done.”

Opera has a big presence in the CSO’s 2018-19 season, including full concert performances of two works and excerpts from Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung as part of Simone Young’s guest-conducting debut June 6-8 and 11 at Symphony Center. In addition, the CSO will present an array of overtures to well-known and not-so-well-known operas by  composers such as Wolfgang Mozart, Gioachino Rossini and Richard Wagner. And if all that wasn’t enough, pianist Behzod Abduraimov is including Franz Liszt’s transcription of Isolde’s Libestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in his SCP Piano recital on March 3.

As part of his annual CSO residency, guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen will lead concerts March 28-30 and April 2 of Béla Bartók’s one-act opera, Bluebeard’s Castle. The Hungarian composer’s only opera, which premiered at the Budapest Opera in 1918, it is one of the strongest examples of his folk-influenced style prior to World War I. The one-hour work is a symbolist treatment of a 1697 story from Charles Perrault’s Mother Goose Tales that downplays the original’s grimmer aspects. Singing the role of Bluebeard and his ill-fated wife Judith are two well-known soloists: bass John Relyea and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung.

Riccardo Muti is one of the world’s most acclaimed interpreters of Verdi’s works. To culminate the CSO’s 2018-19 season on June 21, 23 and 25, Muti will lead the orchestra and its chorus in a concert version of Aida, one of Verdi’s most celebrated operas. Last summer, Muti oversaw a staged production of Aida at the prestigious Salzburg Festival, with soprano Anna Netrebko in the title role. The CSO’s version will feature Krassimira Stoyanova as Aida, with mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris and tenor Francesco Meli as Radamès.

Here is this season’s line-up of operatic offerings:

Dec. 6-8 and 11: Wagner’s overture to Rienzi, conductor Edward Gardner.

March 3: Liszt’s Isolde’s Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, pianist Behzod Abduraimov.

March 14-16: Rossini’s overture to Il viaggio a Reims and Wagner’s overture to Tannhäuser, conductor Riccardo Muti.

March 28-30 and April 2: Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and bass John Relyea.

March 30: Family matinee, Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro, conductor Scott Speck.

May 9-11: Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, Muti.

May 30-31 and June 1: Rossini’s overture to The Barber of Seville, conductor Matthias Pintscher.

June 6-8 and 11: Wagner’s Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Funeral March from Götterdämmerung, conductor Simone Young.

June 21-25: Verdi’s Aida, with Muti, soprano Krassimira Stoyanova (Aida), Anita Rachvelishvili (Amneris), tenor Francesco Meli (Radamès), baritone Kiril Manolov (Amonasro), bass Ildar Abdrazakov (Ramfis), bass-baritone Eric Owens (The King), tenor Issachah Savage (Messenger), soprano Kimberly Gunderson (The Priestess) and soprano Tasha Koontz (The Priestess).

TOP: Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Rossini’s Stabat mater last season. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018