Amplification at the Opera

by François Nouvion

More and more rumors about some kind of sound amplification in the opera house are circulating. Pavarotti, encouraged by his experience with the Three Clowns concerts where the use of a microphone is necessary to be heard due to the locations chosen for those concerts, said that he did not object to the use, for good reason as he has no voice left, of a microphone on the operatic stage. I have friends that are relatively new to the opera saying that they do not see any problem with Pavarotti using a microphone to prolong his career. The new craze with the voiceless Bocelli is another way toward the death of opera.

Opera is about hearing voices without the need for amplification in properly designed auditoriums. In the States the construction of huge halls with poor acoustic has rendered the singers almost inaudible in those venues. I am talking about such houses as the Met, the New York City Opera, the Chicago Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Sydney Opera, the Houston Grand Opera and in France the socialist madness of La Bastille. What we hear in those places has nothing to do with opera. One may as well stay at home and listen to the manufactured sound of a CD. In the old days, even the so-called popular singers of the time needed a voice to be heard, as they had no microphone. The advance of movies and the microphone have first killed the singing of popular artists, now it is time to kill the operatic voices.

Two articles I'd like to comment on drew my attention. The first one was mentioned to me by a Russian friend, Vera Lhyakova; it was picked up on the web from the New York Times website. It is an article titled Meddling With Opera's Sacred Human Voice, by Anthony Tommasini.

The author went on to describe how amplification systems have officially been kept out of the concert halls and opera houses. Tommasini points out that the New York City opera would break that rule and announce that they will install a sound enhancement system during the 1999 fall season. The hall where the NY City Opera operates was designed for the infamous NY City Ballet that insisted that the sound coming from the stage should be deadened. Why the NY City Opera considered to operate under those conditions makes no sense, but they are not alone as all the main US operatic stages are like that. Tommasini went on to say that other companies probably use something similar, but say nothing because of audience reactions. One can say that doing so is dishonest and defrauding the patrons coming to listen to real voices.

The NY City Opera says that their system is not a conventional amplification system, but an enhancement system (as natural a sound as you can get, said Paul Kellogg, the manager of the NY City Opera). Well no matter what they say it is, it is still a disgrace to use those systems. Why not construct hall with proper acoustics? This seems too difficult for the geniuses of today.

The second article comes from the Financial Times. It is titled Discord runs through the sound of music, by Richard Fairman. The subtitle of this article runs along the same line of the previous article: It is meant to improve the acoustics, but electronic enhancement can ruin a good night at the opera. This article features a photo of the Three Clowns in concert, an appropriate representation for the topic. Fairman wonders how well the secret about amplification in the opera house has been kept. Fairman indicates the way to spot enhancement the next time you go to the opera is to listen carefully and see if it is hard to pinpoint where the singer is singing from, and if the words are fuzzy due to added resonance. Fairman talks about his first bad experience with the system at the Maggio Musicale. The system there was introduced in 1990 and approved by the second rater Zubin Mehta. Fairman goes on describing, in simple terms, what this enhancement is all about. It does not amplify, but recycle the natural sound through speakers to produce a longer resonance in theaters which have poor acoustics. It is so "good" that, except for a small number of exceptions, few companies are eager to advertise they are using it. Among the companies advertising it, we can find the Muziek Theater in Amsterdam (opened in 1986 and designed by another "acoustics expert"), Staatsoper in Berlin (a real mystery and not needed at all, is it due to another second rater, Daniel Barenboim?), the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Hummingbird Center in Toronto, and the Adelaide Festival center. It was tried at the ENO, and its use is strongly denied by the Bastille Opera, in spite of contradictory listening experience.

Ian Campbell, the director of the San Diego Opera, is concerned when he discovered that he could not rely upon what he was hearing in theaters using sound systems. Voices that seemed huge with an electronic enhancement system did not carry to the back of his theater, when he was auditioning them. This completely contradicts the claim of the manufacturers of those systems. Now most people are used to hear singer singing through a microphone. The tendency nowadays is to like small voices (i.e. Bocelli, Vargas, Bartoli, Austin Kelly, Ford, Hadley, etc.) and consider big voices provincial and unnecessary. We are well on the way to have opera performed by singers using body microphones. The death of opera is slowly coming. After the destruction of opera by the producers, we will have the destruction of voice by this kind of enhancement

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