Saturday, December 31, 2005

Artificially-flavored opera product

The New York Times' Anthony Tommasini seems to be getting a fair amount of stick these days -- some of it warranted, but do you folks remember his predecessors!? -- but this article returns to one of his most admirable moments: the long crusade against City Opera's electronic "enhancement".

As he originally predicted, miking has slowly gotten more obvious and widespread since that first crack of the door. (Most notable here: that loved-by-theater-critics, trashed-by-opera-folks (amplified) run of Luhrmann's Boheme.)

What he doesn't mention this time, though the article appears in IHT, is that it's not just an American issue: a growing number of European venues has been using electronic sound sweetener as well, including the Berlin State Opera. Does the local press there even mention this sort of thing?

In my New York experience, City Opera's sound system is often the least of its problems, though use sometimes verges on the abusive, while BAM abuses its version quite a lot. The Met, of course, remains fairly purist -- though a pessimist might wonder what Gelb has in store.


UPDATE (1:45AM): It appears the Met isn't always purist enough. Perhaps they've been taking too much advice from Barbara Cook?

UPDATE 2 (3AM): This wouldn't be a bad place for FTC or its state equivalents to mandate full (or at least pretty substantial) disclosure. Any consumer advocate types out there? (Perhaps throwing in pop lipsynching disclosure would get the ball moving...)

10 comments:

  1. Hi, there!

    I have heard plenty of reports of amplification at the Met, including from people who said they had inside sources. I don't particularly believe this, mostly because I don't think it's a secret that could be kept.

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  2. Yeah, I remember Jorden spreading that innuendo too. ;)

    But I agree with you -- it would take some conspiracy. The official line, which seems right to me, is that only special effects and offstage stuff is amplified. There are noticable live spots on the stage, but nothing inconsistent with unjuiced acoustics.

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  3. I was in the pit for Boheme in SF (Luhrmann's production), and several of the folks they brought from New York swore up and down that the Met used amplification. One had played there. Now of course any one of us can lie, but I'm just not sure why this individual would.

    As to keeping secrets ... it really can be done. I knew at least two that were not public until certain individuals had died, or were near death.

    But anyway, who knows? And if it can only be an rumor then obviously, if it IS happening, it's subtle and unnoticeable.

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  4. To be honest, I'm sort of torn about the use of amplification.

    I went to a performance of Carmen in San Diego years ago. The baritone had a huge voice, evenly produced and so on. I mentioned this to an usher as I was leaving and he said something like "Well, of course his voice is huge, he's been miked". He then pointed out the white spots on the stage, which he said were the microphones. Dastardly San Diego Opera!

    After sitting through a Tristan here in Los Angeles that had an almost inaudible Isolde when the orchestra got above a whisper, I'd have LOVED to have had sound enhancement for her voice, because the bits I could hear were lovely.

    I know sound enhancement is wrong from the point of view of "Part of the thrill of opera is hearing someone project their voice to the back of a 3,000 seat hall over a large orchestra" and, using the case of the baritone in San Diego, a dishonest representation of what his voice was really like, but maybe if it was widespread, singers wouldn't force so much? It's a dilemma, that's for sure.

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  5. "maybe if it was widespread, singers wouldn't force so much"

    If miking were widespread, onstage performers would in a flash be no longer singers at all, but pretty actors and actresses with a tiny dose of actual singing ability. (NYCO casting has trended in that direction already.) As Tommasini's article rightly points out, this is exactly what happened to Broadway.

    Incidentally, hasn't Radvanovsky sung for San Diego? Can't imagine her sounding any louder than she naturally does -- or anyone wanting to replace that with some amplified sonic goo.

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  6. Miking at the Met? It is entirely possible.

    I did a little internship at the Met a "few" years ago, backstage and with the chorus and witnessed an ungoldly long 5 hour Parsifal run-through rehearsal (Levine added stuff back in that Wagner had taken out).

    At the time, I saw all FOUR stages (you guys know there are FOUR entirely separate stages that rotate, right?) and a whole FLOOR that is the wig department, and an entire narrow HIDDEN SECOND LEVEL behind & above the back stage wall that major backdrop scenery could ascend up into IN ONE PIECE, etc, etc. It's obvious that technology abounds at the Met.

    That plus my own moderately astute ears lead me to guess that miking is definitely happening, maybe not all the time, just to throw us off, but I'd wager definitively "YES" to that one.

    As for singers, it's creating a GIGANTIC schism in how we are being trained, because of the great disparity in what is expected. The Met's acoustics, Graz, Kennedy Center, wherever, were originally designed for extremely well trained "UNAMPLIFIED VOICES" to project over moderate orchestras under the baton of reasonable conductors with egos that were reined in to serve the music and support the singer. Alas, that is no longer the case.

    And it is creating PANIC among younger professionals. Go to Vertesi's blog and read about his "Rolepanic". http://vertesi.com/blog/2005/12/rolepanic.html Read it and weep.

    What are we training our young singers to do, sing opera unamplified or sing into microphones? Either tell us what we're supposed to do, or let us sing the way we're trained, please! If no one can, get ready for the nodes, depression and loss of our beloved art, as it was once known.

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  7. Regarding those white disks at San Diego and amplification - did the baritone's voice stay even as he walked around the stage? Wouldn't that mean everyone was amplified? How huge did the other singers sound? Or was someone on a sound board switching the mikes on and off....?

    Somebody on opera-l once chastised SF Opera for using amplification; when I asked him some questions, it turned out what he was identifying as speakers were the Sennheiser system projectors, which use infrared, I think, to send sound to headsets used by the hearing impaired. Did that usher really know he was looking at microphones?

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  8. Having sung onstage at Seattle Opera's McCaw Hall, I can attest to the fact that, technically, there is miking. There are several monitors behind and above the stage, as well as in the wings. If that audio is not put through to speakers planted in the house, then it certainly must add to the total volume coming from the stage itself. I would imagine that a similar system is use at the Met, so that the same would hold true--monitor additives, if not direct house amplification.

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  9. Regarding those white disks at San Diego and amplification - did the baritone's voice stay even as he walked around the stage? Wouldn't that mean everyone was amplified? How huge did the other singers sound? Or was someone on a sound board switching the mikes on and off....?

    The baritone's voice was the largest by far, but I did notice during the performance that whenever any of the singers turned and sang towards the wings, the aural perspective didn't change, so I'm assuming it was for everybody. That's why I commented about the baritone to the usher, I was hoping he would know.

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  10. I may be attending La Fille Du Regiment on opening night, JSU!

    It's up in the air, since my dad just left to England, but I'll give it a whirl -- and maybe guest-blog. ;)

    Cheers,
    Victoria

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.