Opera, Amplification and a Terrific DVD

Speight Jenkins has been a friend of mine for 40 years, and there is no one (except maybe for Tony Tommasini, though I'd give the edge to Speight) who is more fanatically opposed to amplifying opera singers. He fulminates, he sputters, he waxes wroth. For the anti-amplification zealots (no "pro choice" for them), opera is the last bastion of purely unreinforced singing (we'll leave aside Fafner's megaphone).

I have a more relaxed attitude toward all this; I follow where composers and singers want to lead me, and see no profound philosophical difference between tweaking the "natural" acoustic of a hall (though reversible reflective panels, floating sound-diffusing clouds or just putting on operas in smaller theaters, as in Europe, for heaven's sake) and a subtle in-house amplification system. It's "purer," maybe, if the hall and sound designers settle on a fixed scheme and leave it alone from performance to performance and singer to singer.

But amplified voices in opera can work, too. Opera singers are routinely adjusted electronically in the recording studio (or the house, if a performance is being recorded live). What matters in the efficacy of a supposedly big-voiced singer (e.g., Pavarotti singing Otello) are matters of attack, linguistic and stylistic idiomatic fluency, tonal weight (by which I mean a voice that sounds right in terms of helt and meatiness even if in the theater it might sound small).

Some of this came to mind recently when a Princeton professor named Andrew Moravcsik interviewed me for an article or book he is writing on the decline of big-voiced opera singers, especially in Verdi (is it still possible to properly cast Il Trovatore), Wagner and Puccini. We batted around various reasons this might be so, and there are a lot of them. But I find it hard to regard such a decline as a cultural tragedy: pendulums swing, tastes change, and there's always amplification if needed.

Which it is in pop and jazz, and Henry Pleasans developed a whole theory about how amplification has purged opera of the mannered distortions of late-19th-century vocal production, restoring opera singing to the conversational purity of Monteverdi's era. With the ubiquity of world music, we see that vocal styles vary the world over, and who's to say that Western-style opera singing, which sounds as weird to non-devotees as Chinese opera, represents any qualitative apex?

Still, they are needed for the operas that need them. Even I concede that a lack of hefty (vocally hefty, that is) spintos and dramatics is not ideal. V, W and P wrote for unamplified voices, and loudspeakers and clumsy level manipulators can make an amplified performance sound horribly artificial.

But what about contemporary composers who happily countenance amplification, who write for blends of vocal types, or for acoustic and amplified and electronic instruments as part of their compositional aesthetic? I have recently seen two new operas in big, American-gargantuan opera houses that used singer amplification, and no one much complained.

One was Stewart Wallace's The Bonesetter's Daughter in San Francisco, which amplified the singers largely because, it seemed, one of the principals, Qian Yi in the title role, was Chinese-trained and lacked the muscular amplitude of Western-style singers. The other was John Adams's Doctor Atomic, first heard three years ago in San Francisco and now at the Met in New York. Adams LIKES amplified voices; they fit into his fascinating coloristic acoustic-electronic sonic palette. Again, no none seemed profoundly unhappy, although there had been tales when the opera was first scheduled for the Met that Petr Gelb was uncomfortable with the idea of amplification. If he was, he apparently got over it.

And then there is the new DVD of Doctor Atomic, filmed at the Amsterdam incarnation of the original Peter Sellars production, as directed for the camera by Sellars himself. To my taste, this is the best Doctor Atomic yet, better than his production as seen on stage and certainly better than Penny Woolcock's at the Met. Sellars loves closeups (as does Woolcock, in her films), which seemed intrusive sometimes in his video versions of the three Da Ponte/Mozart operas. Here they work magnificently, and even serve to minimize the impact of Lucinda Childs's dances. I missed the spectacle of everyone lying down, looking out at the audience at the end; the closeups connstrict that. But they work superbly in the more intimate scenes, which abound.

Lawrence Renes is the wonderful conductor, full of drive and detail, and Jessica Rivera is the best Kitty yet. This DVD makes the most convincing case for Adams score: the draggy bits in a stage production tighten up into gripping personal drama; the tension in the apocalyptic buildup towards the end is palpable; and the greatest scene -- one of the great scenes in all of opera -- at the end of the first act could not be more powerful.

Do you notice the amplification of the voices? Not really, since in a recording they are by definition "amplified." Whatever the idealistic validity of the Jenkins/Tommasini argument against amplification in live performance, and I can certainly see their point, the train has maybe already left the station. Operas at houses as traditional as San Francisco and the Met are now being amplified; recordings are inherently amplified; and if widespread rumors are true, more and more companies amplify their singers in traditional operas without telling the public or the critics. Once again, practice defines reality, outstripping mere theory. Let alone nostalgia.    

November 1, 2008 12:53 PM | | Comments (3)

3 Comments

One of the components of operatic magic is precisely that the voices are NOT amplified. This is what makes it opera and not "Lez Miz." I love musicals, but musicals are not opera. In opera, there is a person singing on stage with a voice so powerful yet accurate that they can fill an entire hall with gorgeous sound without a mike. I remember introducing a friend to opera, and we peeked in the hall an hour before the performance. The night's tenor was warming up, standing on stage in his jeans and t-shirt. We were on the second balcony. My friend's jaw dropped. "My God, that guy doesn't have a microphone!" That, dear sir, is the magic of an operatic voice. I'm just one of the people who fills the seats, but the fact that the singers are NOT amplified is what astounds me and keeps me coming back. If they begin to be amplified, I'll skip it and go catch "Wicked" instead.

" Operas at houses as traditional as San Francisco and the Met are now being amplified; "
Operas are NOT routinely amplified at either San Francisco or the Met, only in specific cases like Dr Atomic or if there is spoken dialog (like La Fille du Regiment) in which case the spoken dialog is amplified as opera singers aren't trained in projecting spoken speach, but the mics are turned off for music. WHY DO YOU SPREAD LIES? Someone told on the web that Met has this conspiracy and secretly amplifies, and now this lie (that Met denied repeatedly) is being repeated as fact. Do you think all of us Met opera-goers are deaf and cannot distinguish live voices from amplified voices? The sound is VERY DIFFERENT!

Do you even understand how difficult from sound engineering perspective it'd be to amplify voices at a theater built for acoustics and do it in a way that nobody would notice? There is a reason Broadway uses these ugly contraptions. Do you know how much work goes into Broadway amplification to ensure the balance; and Broadway plays are written for amplification.

After reading your article I am not sure if you have even been to an opera theater.... Have you ever experienced the beauty of unamplified voice? Yes, amplified voice would sound closer to recordings, so then if live opera sounded closer to recording why would anybody bother going to live opera?

Yes, recording uses technology. This is why people go to opera instead of staying at home listening to great singers of the past: to listen to UNAMPLIFIED VOICES! Otherwise, why bother? I can watch Met HD Broadcasts and get an excellent view of the stage for $20; why would I go to the Met and pay more for worse view? I can buy DVDs of great performers of the past, plenty of those on amazon.

And yes, there are spinto and dramatic voices today. Lise Lindstrom for example. As to Il Trovatore, Jiuliana di Giacomo, Sondra Radvanovsky are both excellent Leonoras, for example.

I'd agree with Carlos. Not only amplification will mean the death of regional opera companies, but 2/3 of Met-goers will stop going.


Why should I pay the high cost of opera to hear amplified voices?

I won't. If the voices are amplified at my local opera house, I won't go. I will just go to the movie theaters that show the MET productions. The MET has better production values, in general, than almost any other U.S. opera company.

Amplification will be the death of local opera companies.

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