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So which parts of the Met get miked, and which seats are blinded?

Slipped Disc’s newly-engaged opera watcher, Elizabeth Frayer, has been back at the Met to see L’Elisir and found herself wondering, as many do, whether certain parts of the stage are discreetly amplified. The Met has repeatedly denied that it mikes singers, but rumours persist and the public keeps coming back with complaints.

What Elizabeth also spotted was that people sitting to  left and right of front row center Dress Circle get blinded by stage spotlights. They pay $200 for that privilege. Probably they don’t choose those seats twice.

Read Elizabeth here. On, the ‘newly-engaged’?

Admire her gorgeous engagement photo to – lucky man – Shawn Milnes.

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  1. Well theatres and sets do have sweet spots and indeed black spots …… at the Volksoper in the Balcony to the left of the stage you can pretty much only hear the horn section …….

  2. Didn’t DFD say in an interview that it was an open secret that the Met was miked??????

    • I’m sorry to need to ask, but, who is DFD? An “open secret” would imply, of course, that everyone associated with the Met knows. It would seem that the company’s critics would have a field day with this information, and yet, and I have not seen this day yet. What I have seen is on the record, absolute straight-forward denial from everyone associated with the performances.

      • It would make very much sense to amplify (subtly and tastefully) in the MET.
        The MET is simply too gigantic for a reasonable natural opera acoustic.
        That’s a well known fact for those who should know.

        • Of course it is too large and, if we were listening to a Broadway musical, amplification would make sense. But we are not. This is opera, and therefore, I would never be in favor of amplification of singers.

          • If you accept it is too large, it means the singers can not project well sound wise. You have only two choices to improve the situation:
            -Amplify the singers (in a way that is non-intrusive, not like you would amplify musical singers)
            -decrease the room dimensions so a reasonable acoustic is created proportional to human vocal capabilities.

            The second choice is not going to happen. Leaves you choice one, which in itself has risks. But is doing nothing about it really the best solution?

        • Well, no. The world’s greatest singers have performed at the Met’s Lincoln Center venue and at its similar-sized predecessor, and many of them have counted their grandest successes there. That includes lighter, more lyrical voices as well giant dramatic instruments like the NIlssons and the Corellis. To name one very obvious recent example, the very light-voiced Kathleen Battle sang more performances at the Met than she did in any other theater.

          The aural issue is associated with acoustics rather than sheer size of the auditorium. The Met’s current auditorium is in fact quite singer-friendly. The only issue is that the vibrancy of the theater also gives the orchestra a sizable lift, and so conductors need to be judicious about fortissimos.

          A different sort of problem is that it is not easy to design and direct productions that look well throughout so large a theater, and it is a particular sort of gift to be able to act effectively across such a great divide as separates a Mimi from the last row of Family Circle. But that has nothing to do with sound.

      • DFD = Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

        Did he ever perform at the Met? I can’t swear to it, but I don’t think so. He pretty much limited his opera performances to the German-speaking lands.

  3. There are clear sweet spots at the Met, as at every theater. The “opera watcher” knows that, of course, or should.

    I saw her question posed on that other site that starts with a P. 99% of the comments, including from the host of the site, were very specific about where the sweet spots – and dead spots – are located. There was no suggestion anywhere that any mic was used for singers.

    Several comments noted how the singers manipulated their movements to make use of the areas in question and wondered why the directors did not do this more often.

    If mics were used, we would have been able to hear Fleming at the end of Otello Act 3, instead of having her voice swamped into nothingness, and there would not be such huge discrepancies between certain singers performing Wagner, among others.

  4. another orchestra musician says:

    Some years ago, acoustician Kirkegaard fitted the New York State Theater (next to the Met) with an artificial reverberation system. It wasn’t very successful. People complained loudly, and rightly, about how unnatural it sounded. Could be that Slipped Disc’s opera watcher is influenced, subliminally, by memories of the discussion surrounding it.

    • artificial reverberation system is the opposite of amplifying singers.
      You do one for creating a virtual larger space and the other for make the singers fit into the real but too large space.
      One example of a successful artificial reverb system was Barenboim’s Staatsoper in Berlin, which had it for many years before it’s current renovation (and acoustical enlargement). One day it was installed and switched on secretly first, and the musicians since didn’t want to live without it anymore.

  5. During a tour of the MET’s audio facilities during a convention of the Audio Engineering Society, I learned that during the MET broadcast season, there are lots of mikes everywhere in front of and on the MET stage, sometimes even attached to parts of the sets. Some of these mikes might even be there earlier in the season and it might be possible to mistake these for sound reinforcement mikes. But as far as I know, none of the mikes feed speakers in the house. Listening from the house from a wide variety of locations over the years, I’ve found definite “sweet spots” primarily caused (deliberately) by the large reflecting surfaces of the proscenium, as well as the stage floor itself and any large, flat portions of the sets. (Like any sound emitter, a singer backed up against a large “flat” will put more decibels into the house than when standing a few feet in front of it. So basic physics provides a valid acoustical reason, if not a dramatic one, to “chew the scenery.”)

    In none of the sweet spots I’ve found does the sound seem to originate from anywhere besides the pit or the stage. And none of it has a loudspeaker-tinged coloration. Besides, except for the wretched, easily detected PA speakers tucked behind the over-the-stage sculpture, I’ve neither seen nor heard any evidence of in-house sound reinforcement speakers. One need only head a mile downtown into the Broadway theater district to hear that even the best theatrical sound reinforcement, for which people win Tony awards, sounds completely different from a purely “acoustic” theater, like the MET. To me, even the best work of the Broadway kind usually sounds like it is coming from loudspeakers. This is not to say that amplification is never used at the MET, but I’ve detected it only in very special circumstances, such as the now customary piping in of Jochanaan’s voice from the cistern in Strauss’ Salome. One wonders if his words were intelligible, or even audible, at the (unamplified) early performances of that work.

    This is also not to say that the MET is acoustically perfect. It definitely is NOT, starting with the too loud side-wall reflections heard from some of the most expensive seats on the main floor (these same reflections also create sweet spots elsewhere). The place is also simply too damn big for the long-term viability of most singers’ voices. That many voices simply do not last under such acoustic circumstances is perhaps the best evidence that amplification is not being used. You need an unusually durable instrument to have a long career at the MET.


    • Since Sixtus didn’t spell it out explicitly, and for those readers who don’t already know it: All those microphones are for recording and broadcasting the performances. (Remember that, for instance, most Met performances are now broadcast on the company’s Sirius/XM satellite radio channel.)

    • William Safford says:

      Sixtus: you’ve articulated why I almost never go to Broadway shows any longer: I can’t stand the amplification.
      These days, one of the best ways to hear a Broadway show is at an opera house, since these performances are unamplified and use real orchestras instead of synthesizers and a few musicians piped in from another room. (There are also negative issues, worthy of a separate discussion.)

      An argument can be made for Broadway shows — or the rare modern opera — that incorporate amplification as part of their esthetic.

      But if amplification became part and parcel of opera? That’s when I would stop going, and stop playing in them.

  6. I recently watched the documentary, Wagner’s Dream, and I thought I saw Jay Hunter Morris with a mic attached to his head before they put the Wig on him. I was not sure if I saw correctly.

    • I don’t know which particular performance was being filmed, but don’t the singers all need to wear mics for the radio broadcasts and hi-def cinemacasts?

    • Individual microphones are used on singers for the HD telecasts and many of the Sirius/XM radio broadcasts, plus dry runs for each of these events. These microphones are used to pick up the voices to be mixed for electronic retransmission’ that is, as the soundtrack for the HD telecast or the sound stream of the radio broadcast. Thus, in a series of Siegfried performances, an artist might well be wearing an individual microphone for three or four nights out of the run.

      I personally am not a fan of this close-miking style because it flattens out the dynamic range of the performance as it is broadcast: that is, a very light voice like Natalie Dessay’s seems to soar out over the orchestra as powerfully as, say, Anna Netrebko’s. Also, the miked sound often lacks the roundness we expect from operatic voices as they bounce around a live theater, which makes even quite fine voices sound somewhat harsh or even strident. For my taste, the Met sound is over-mediated; it sounds more like a Decca recording than a genuine opera performance.

      But that “Met sound” applies only to the broacasts and telecasts. I have been attending the Met very regularly for over 25 years and never once have I heard any sort of electronic noise, dropout or interference that could be associated with live amplification.

      In contrast, I heard the show Follies on Broadway four times last year — this done with an extremely sophisticated “sound design” customized to this single work as opposed to the Met’s repertory system. At two performances I can remember, there was a momentary glitch in the sound amplification: once a momentary dropout while Bernadette Peters was singing her “Losing My Mind” number. Because Miss Peters began in the pre-miked era of Broadway performance, she has a fuller, better-projected voice than most performers in this genre. And yet, when the mike connection cut out, the level of her voice dropped very noticeably, then blared as the connection was restored, before the proper dials could be turned to correct the balance.

      If the Met were amplifying, then such a glitch would almost certainly have occurred sometime in the past couple of decades. I have never heard such a thing happen, and I have never even heard a report of such a thing happening.

      What does happen is that the configuration of the set affects how the voices project into the house — that could be heard, for example, in some scenes in L’elisir d’amore when the singers stood against the false proscenium at stage left or right. Also there is an odd trick where moving only a foot or two farther downstage in the proscenium area suddenly seems to locate the singer in a much more live acoustic. (A good example of that is in the Met’s production of Nabucco, where the bass sings his big aria on a platform projecting slightly over the orchestra pit. Even the mediocre Carlo Colombara seems to make the whole theater shake.) I have often wondered why the Met did not build out its stage area a few more feet into the auditorium to take advantage of this natural bit of “amplification.”

  7. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    The TV production of Dr. Atomic (Netherlands Opera, 2007, I believe) shown frequently in Europe on Mezzo and Brava TV this past summer, clearly shows some of the singers wearing ear pieces and microphones much like those worn for Broadway musicals. I don’t know whether these were for amplification in the hall or for use as monitors because with the size of the orchestra and the complicated staging, I imagine the singers had a hard time hearing each other. A prompter could also be whispering in their ear. I once saw Gerard Depardieu in a play “Les portes du ciel” by Jacques Attali around 1999 and he was wearing an earpiece because he obviously didn’t know his lines.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      La Cieca’s explanation above might explain what I saw during the Dr. Atomic broadcast in HD. In other clips from that production on YouTube no devices are visible.

      • Actually, I know that Nixon in China and perhaps Dr. Atomic are composed for amplified voices. The sound design for Nixon at the Met was quite dismal on the opening night, though I am told it was tweaked some during the run of the show. But these are specific cases in which microphones are prescribed by the composer. (For a broadcasts of an Adams opera, obviously the headpieces could do double duty.)

  8. The trouble with miked performances, whether it be Broadway musical or opera, is that all the amplification comes out from one or two speakers and with my bad eyesight you can tell who is singing. Plus the theatre admin must think we’re all deaf…the sound is SOOOOO loud!

    • Graf Nugent says:

      If you think all shows are amplified that primitively you’ve clearly never been to a show entrusted to Martin Levan.

  9. That shud read…you can’t tell who is singing. Norman I think you should invest in some more sophisticated wizadry that allows submittors to correct their script before it is published. Ta!

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