The Perils (and Art) of Singing with Microphones

The Latest in the Masterclass Series

Monday, April 25, 2011 - 06:20 PM

Today is Ella Fitzgerald’s birthday and I am celebrating this greatest of singers by watching some of her performances on YouTube. It occurred to me that she and very few others used the microphone for expressive purposes rather than amplification.

What, you are surely asking, does this have to do with opera? Microphones exist in opera houses, mostly for benign uses such as capturing sound from the stage and the orchestra pit to transmit to radio listeners and viewers in cinemas watching HD broadcasts. At the Met you can see them at the edge of the stage, just above the orchestra pit. While radio broadcasts can give a faithful approximation of what is being heard in the theater, HD broadcasts from certain opera houses have sound adjustment to give a different balance in the movie theater. 

I have noticed, when attending HD transmissions, that the sound of the voice and chorus is much more present than that of the orchestra. While opera in HD has many virtues, I am always disappointed by the sound of the orchestra, whose range and volume can never be fully perceived. It is just enough in the background to lack the visceral thrill one has when hearing the colors and textures of an orchestral score live in the opera house.

There is use of microphones in some venues presenting opera where the acoustics are bad and, inevitably, it is a fiasco. I don’t care how good the “sound design” is, the mediation of electronics between voice and audience inevitably flattens and cheapens the performance. I can hear the difference and so can many audience members. For a number of years, until the New York State Theatre was recently retrofitted and renamed the Koch Theater, it had acoustics that were not the best. The stage was designed to deaden the sound of footfalls by dancers of the New York City Ballet, according to the wishes of the company’s leader, George Balanchine. 

Many singers at the New York City Opera, the co-tenant of the theater, complained that their sound was diminished, though house diva Beverly Sills (right) used to cheerfully remark that she never had a problem. Nor did many other singers there, even if the acoustics were not ideal. Sills also knew and occupied the location known as the “sweet spot,” the place on most stages that is the best for being fully heard. For a period in recent times, until its theater was redone, City Opera used what was euphemistically called “sound enhancement.” From that day forward I never took the company seriously in musical terms until the microphones were eliminated a couple of seasons ago.

I have been to outdoor opera performances in which singers are miked for amplification and others in which their natural sound, though thinner than in a theater with a roof, was characteristic and beautiful. In big spaces that were not intended for performance, such as the Great Lawn of Central Park or the baseball stadium in San Francisco, I will accept microphones as a necessity to bring this music to more people. But it isn’t opera.

Special Cases: from Salome to Nixon

There are cases in which amplification is used for special effects or the wishes of the composer. When John Adams conducted his Nixon in China at the Met in February, he insisted that microphones be used as they had elsewhere because they were part of his conception of the score. I think I enjoyed this opera more than most people with whom I spoke, but I cringed from the amplification. The Met, with its superior acoustics, just does not tolerate amplification in its auditorium. The worst affected were the wonderful James Maddalena, who sounded hollow as Nixon, and Kathleen Kim, one of the company’s leading young coloratura sopranos, who needs absolutely no sound enhancement. It severely marred her bravura performance as Madame Mao. I don’t second-guess composers, certainly not ones of the stature of Mr. Adams, but I respectfully disagree with his choice.

Unless things have changed, the Met also uses amplification in two operas by Richard Strauss, but only briefly and for special effect. One is when, in Salome, Jokanaan (John the Baptist) sings from deep in the cistern in which he is held. The microphone creates a sense of echoing from the depths. The other case is when the voices of unborn children (a chorus) are heard from offstage in Die Frau ohne Schatten. This works because it is heard in ghostly contrast to the audible sturm und drang that happens onstage in this riveting opera.

There are persistent and insidious rumors that the Met and other companies use body mikes or those hanging like a tiny pearl from a wig. People who believe this to be true insist that it is part of a trend in opera to prefer good-looking singers with average voices rather than average-looking artists with great voices and first-rate singing ability. If that is the case, in any opera house, I demand that this information be put in the house program and posted at the box office so that subscribers and ticket buyers know what they are getting into. I would cancel my subscription instantly.

Nothing, for an opera lover, matches the glorious sensation of hearing a gorgeous voice, used by a singer of great artistry, in combination with a splendid orchestra in a hall with superb acoustics. Keep the sets, lighting, costumes and scenery if you must, but give me sound as the composer meant for me to hear it.

Broadway and the Point of No Return

Some opera managers think the future of the art form will come in attracting younger audiences who have become accustomed (or, shall I say, inured) to amplification at rock concerts or in the theater. In my youth, I attended Broadway musicals in which the actors sang, danced and recited their lines eight shows with no electronic support. It was a given that, in straight plays, actors could perform without amplification, in part so we could revel in the range and subtlety of their natural voices. Mikes crept onto Broadway at least two decades ago and are now so ubiquitous that even actors some small theaters use them in plays.

Anyone who heard Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Zero Mostel, Robert Preston and others stars in musicals has great problems enjoying shows today. Now singers are miked (look at the front of their wig or behind their ear) and, for reasons I will never understand, the orchestras are miked too. Everything is loud and distorted and, to the nuanced ears of someone who is a regular at an opera house or a concert hall, this is ruinous. “Mixed” or “enhanced” sound is tinny and distorted, no matter how talented the engineer. A few years ago, a stripped-down Broadway production of Sondheim’s operatic Sweeney Todd was played through two electronic keyboards programmed to produce all kinds of effects. I wanted the Demon Barber of Fleet Street to hack up the sound designer for ruining this great score.

Opera does not tolerate microphones. If you saw Baz Luhrmann’s production of Puccini’s La Bohéme on Broadway in the 2002-2003 season, you know that it had many virtues as theater but its pretty performers did not have the chops to sing their roles. They were miked and so was the orchestra, and the show was dead on arrival musically. I would have been very happy to see this production in an opera house, without mikes, but it ultimately was boring on Broadway without great musical values and I think it made very few audience members resolve to go to “real” opera. This should be a caution for any head of an opera company contemplating the use of amplification.

And yet there is a style of singing, which we might call American Popular Song, whose best practitioners use microphones for expressive purposes rather than primarily for being amplified. Barbara Cook, a great Broadway and popular singer who loves opera, does this quite well. In her concerts she will often, late in the show, put down the microphone and do one song a cappella and without amplification so that the audience can experience the difference. Cook is in her eighties, but has conserved and deepened her artistry and technique. She has inherited this tradition, and these skills, and I pray she is teaching them to others.

Mics for Expressive Purposes

Three masters of American Popular Song and one rock singer have a lot to teach us about using a microphone for expression rather than volume. Below are examples of all of these singers in live performances of “Summertime” from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. Yes, it is an opera -- even Frank Sinatra said so.

The infallible Ella Fitzgerald, in this performance, holds the mike in one place and modulates her voice in infinite ways to express details of the music and words. Fitzgerald often, though not here, used her voice as one of the instruments in a band, doing everything the musicians could, but adding words and sound. Here, she lets the melody and words guide her and goes where her instinct and genius lead her and the mike picks it up.

Frank Sinatra, for most of his career, favored arrangements of songs that put him in front of the band so that his voice was a protagonist apart from the instrumentalists. These arrangements, often by Nelson Riddle, created a platform on which Sinatra stood and the microphone was used to capture the quiet beauty of his voice and his exquisite phrasing rather than to crank out volume. In this, Sinatra’s performances were akin to what I described in the HD opera transmissions in which the orchestra is often subdued relative to the singers. This 1944 live performance has a more traditional balance -- Sinatra did not yet have the clout to do it his way -- and it is interesting that even as a young singer he knew not to force his voice but simply allow the mike to capture and transmit it. 

Sarah Vaughan, who seems to have been forgotten by anyone below a certain age, had a different technique. Her voice had great range and color. While Fitzgerald was a dazzling virtuoso who could do anything (think Marilyn Horne) and Sinatra a master of direct singing (think Pavarotti), Vaughan could create an enveloping mood that made you forget everything else on your mind. Vaughan uses the microphone for resonance in the lower end of her register and for an ethereal effect in a couple of other places. She magically evoked the words and music of "Summertime" on a hot night in this performance in Italy in 1975 that I happened to attend. She cast an incredible spell of the kind only a great artist can do. Sarah Vaughan may have not have had the gifts of Fitzgerald or Sinatra, but she was just as effective.  

Janis Joplin was not just a great rock singer but a great singer, period. If she had had a different kind of life and training, I would have loved her as Elektra or perhaps Vitellia in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. Or as Tosca! She caresses the words and melody of the song  just as much as Vaughan or Fitzgerald, but in her own way. Every song Joplin performed had its own world and she used her special voice to bore deep into it. In this, she is the rock equivalent of Leonie Rysanek, Renata Scotto or Maria Callas.

And just so you know what we are fighting for, listen to this very early live performance with Leontyne Price and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra from 1953, a full eight years before she made her company debut in Il Trovatore. The sound quality is poor but the artistry shines through. Microphones were used only to capture this performance, not to “enhance” it. 

I hope you realize that part of my aim here is to have you think about singing and performance in ways you might have not yet pondered. Great singing is great singing, wherever we encounter it. In some cases, electronic mediation contributes to the performance when used intelligently. But I see no place for it in opera.

What do you think? Do some singers, houses or productions need amplification? Please leave a comment below.


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Comments [19]

Gregg Johnson

"Sarah Vaughan may have not have had the gifts of Fitzgerald or Sinatra"? Uhmmm....what? Sinatra said that when he heard Vaughan sing, he wanted to cut his wrists with a rusty razor blade. It wasn't just her far superiour control of pitch and wider range, I suspect. I suppose that one could argue about whether Fitzgerald or Vaughan was the better singer. Vaughan, for me. Much more subtle, much more concerned with nuanced phrasing. Not to demean Ella Fitgerald, but saying that Sarah Vaughn did not have the same gifts seems most strange. Granted, Vaughan lost her upper ranges as she aged, more so than Fitzgerald, but when they were both at their peak...?

Aug. 20 2016 08:24 PM

Hi! That's actually Sarah Vaughan in the first photo labeled Ella Fitzgerald.

Oct. 12 2014 11:49 PM
Claire in Mid-Atlantic

I'm quite passionate about keeping miking out of opera houses. It is a lie, it is fake, and ears know the difference (if not nearly deaf). And that nonesense above about wealthy versus the unwashed masses getting the "sweet spot seats" obviously doesn't know about the accoustics of the last row in the MET's Family Circle, where the singers sound like you could reach out and touch them! And, what about those sound waves? Those who've FELT as well as heard the amazing effects of a big BLOOMING voice or a laser beam of a voice in an opera house will never forget that experience which amplification does not recreate. I stopped going to Broadway, finally and with great sadness, due to amplification. I literally could not tell who was singing (outside of the obvious, ie a male versus female voice) unless I was WATCHING whose mouth was open and moving. I can get that sound in my living room. Basta!

May. 09 2011 07:43 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

Microphone use may be considered like a Damocles Sword, variously a good thing or a bad thing. I recognize the value of the specific use of the mike for "crooners" and for subtle nuancing of the music and words, for solo instrumentalists as well as singers. Sarah Vaughn, as you pointed out, had a luscious voice and subtly nuanced phrasing which properly required microphone assistance. Birgit Nilsson, the stellar Wagnerian heldensoprano, told me that on the Solti complete RING recordings, she felt slighted that the recording volume control pulled back on her voice recording to emphasize a solo instrument and on other occasions, did the same to "equalize" her size of voice with another singer's. Also the 'Met' Opera bass Alexander Kipnis told me how he had to ask the recording engineer for the Hugo Wolf Society's lieder album to leave the recording booth after starting the recording of each of the selections, because the tech was adjusting for diminuendos as he had done for lesser artists. Kipnis had heard playbacks and, his technique as a singer was not known to that tech. Kipnis wanted HIS interpretation and technique to be what would be recorded.
Yet opera's unquestioned Golden Age of WAGNER Performance was the Melchior, Flagstad, Schorr, Kipnis and Branzell "team." It appears that it is more likely to witness GREAT performances in the non-Wagner operas for the development and training of potential "echt" Wagner singers requires more mature, bigger voices, with considerably more stamina, that requires more time in the preparation for that oeuvre.

May. 05 2011 12:51 PM

As a former "ensemble" member (read "chorus boy") in many a traveling summer stock show -- yeah, I know, it's not opera but the sound design idea is the same -- I felt cheapened doing a sound check in a new theater.

Those of us in the ensemble (many with well-trained voices) were reduced to dealing with how the sound guy was going to balance shotgun stage mics vs. body mics on the principals.

We were at a distinct disadvantage, no matter our training. It was demoralizing, but it paid the bills.

Dunno what the audience thought.

Apr. 26 2011 11:43 PM
Dirk from LES

I must say, I recently heard Seance on a Wet Afternoon at City Opera and they could have *really* used amplification there. The singers' voices were so small and the orchestration was so lush, it left me straining to hear (and my hearing is fine). Let's face it, we're living in an age when people need music to be of a certain volume. It's simply not involving to hear something that's so quiet for nearly 3 hours.

Apr. 26 2011 01:49 PM
meche from MIMA

Thank you for the enlightenment. I confess I never thought of the microphone as a tool or as an "enhancer". Miking has managed to keep me off-Broadway, so offensive do I find amplification. I wonder whether the younger generation is just accustomed to it or is actually becoming hard of hearing, in which case we should buy stock in hearing aid companies. Last year I sat next to some 20-somethings making their first trip to the opera. I inquired as to how they enjoyed the performance and they had loved it, but wondered where the body mikes were hidden. They couldn't believe a natural voice could fill up a large space like that. As far as opera is concerned, I see no place for miking. I wish we had smaller opera houses so we could enjoy some of the excellent singers with smaller voices.

Apr. 26 2011 12:57 PM
Jamie from Brooklyn NY

I think the analogy with lowering the rims at an NBA game is apt. Part of the thrill of being a spectator at a basketball game is seeing such superbly gifted, diligently trained performers do things most of us can only dream of. Similarly, the rare voice that can soar over a 100-piece orchestra is truly something to behold.

Even if artificial amplification could adequately make up for an inadequate voice, I wouldn't be interested. When I go to a live performance, I want to hear a live performance, with the sounds coming out of the singers and instruments, not out of a PA system's speakers.

As was noted by an earlier post, not all voices are suited for all halls. Waltraud Meier is probably the preeminent Isolde of our day, but except for one last-minute subsititution, she has never perfomed that role at the Met, because she sensibly realizes she would not serve the role, or her voice, well in the Met's auditorium. I regret that I've never heard her Isolde live, but if she were to perform it here with amplification, then I still couldn't say I truly heard her 'live.'

Apr. 26 2011 11:49 AM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

Microphones, and actually all sound reproduction, are not what it was a decade ago. Digital signal processing has made huge strides in pickup and reproduction quality. The radio from the passing emergency vehicle in the street is no longer an issue with wireless units.

Singers do need some practice with mikes. They can pick up every inhale, every throat clearing, every click of a heel on a floor and every costume ruffle. All workable issues.

But the electroinics can also pickup more vocal nuances, that last tear-drop of a note, that would be lost in the large volume of air where there is also the competition with the sound of the orchestra.

Apr. 26 2011 11:00 AM
Silversalty from Between the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge

Sorry to be disagreeable but much of this is buffalo chips. It's as reactionary as can be. I could go into details but I'm not being paid, besides being twitterized.

The main thing that not miking performers does is favor volume over quality. Sure, bad miking can spoil quality, just as bad theatre does. Good sound transmission often improves it. It also favors the wealthy and insiders. Mr. Plotkin can toss a "diva" at Ms. Sills, but I'm sure he, more often than not, got the "sweet spot" seat in the house. The others, non-wealthy, and unconnected? Tough nuggies (not the phrase on my mind).

I remember a description of actress Liv Ullmann as being a film actress rather than suited for the stage. Her talents were subtle and needed the amplification of the big screen. Orson Welles said the reverse about "Larry" Olivier. I once saw Jewel Kilcher sing in a shoe store (Reebok's on Broadway near Bond). From 15 feet away it was like listening to an angel (would that there were such creatures of good). I had a sweet spot in a shoe store.

"[The young Sinatra, in a live performance] knew not to force his voice but simply allow the mike to capture and transmit it."

What? (A shortened version of the phrase I was thinking.) Bassackwards.

At this point I mainly listen to classical music in a car, with effectively an uninivited boss behind me. There are many pieces where the range of volume is unacceptable in such close circumstances. Pianissimo (or whatever the term) is unheard unless the volume is turned way up. Do that and the orchestra parts blast you away. Sure, it's meant for one person in a large living room seated in a sweet spot chair with a (currently) 7.1 surround sound speaker system - accepting the range as part of the enjoyment. "Sweet spot" again.

I've used sound editors to match the volumes. It's not a detriment to the performance. It just makes for a more general sweet spot. Surprisingly, when I up the volume on quiet sections or reduce the volume on massive ones, the 'mass' maintains the projection of 'weight.' I still get the sense of quiet and loud without having to dive for the volume knob.

Let's extend this attitude. Women shouldn't wear makeup. It more often than not detracts from their beauty .. especially from six inches away, the sweet spot for noting perfection in beauty.

I don't care for the sound of almost all male opera singers. But they've got volume! So what if they sound like perfect shouters, with flat toneless voices. They can blast that shout over the biggest of theatres. The best have overtones that give emotion and personality to their voices. The very best. Think how much more expanded the selection of singers would be if volume wasn't so heavily favored.


Considering the actual nature of Koch, et al, I think whenever they are referenced the pronunciation of their names should be clearly specified. Such as, 'Koch (not pronounced like koch).'

Apr. 26 2011 09:28 AM
Karen L. Ponader

Definitely working a mic takes lots of practice where it becomes part of one's "art" and not just a tool for more NOISE. Check out Toni Bennett or Johnny Mathis for delicate mic moves. Especially some of those soft songs are incredible.

Apr. 26 2011 07:43 AM
Michael Meltzer

As to Mr. Plotkin's complaint about orchestral fidelity after electronic tampering, remember that once soundgoes through a sound system, it's all coming from one or two places. In live performance, a viola or cello solo from the center of the stage or pit can be softer than the whole violin section but be clearly differentiated by its directionality. The same holds true for 8-part polyphony in choral singing, impossible to duplicate in conventional recording.
The only place in classical music I think amplification improves the product is in the concerto for acoustic guitar and orchestra, where any subtlety in the soloist is likely to be completely drowned out.

Apr. 26 2011 06:27 AM
Bruch Reed from Chicago

The mic'd voice is a lie, as well the ear knows.

Apr. 26 2011 03:16 AM
Rinat Shaham from Salzburg

I would to say that of course if mic's are added to operatic singing, one greatly misses the pure acoustic sound which opera singers are trained to produce, on all its purity and magnificent power. However, need it be and a space is simply too large or acoustically inferior (which unfortunately one finds too often), I would rather hear sound-enhanced singing then none at all, and I would also prefer to hear sound-enhanced *good*, colorful singing (and acting) then a boring parade of large voices expressing not much more then decibels. And as a singer myself, I would prefer to still have the opportunity to be employed (and heard) then not.
I feel that I have so much to offer artistically, not only to a limited amount of people in tiny halls, but also to larger crowds. Alas, I was not born in Eastern Europe with a humongous head and gigantic cheek bones which produce a 5000 seat- hall, large orchestral- soaring drowning sound. (And there are a few lucky singers of this kind, but only a few), But what I do have, is not necessarily a dismissible instrument (or craft) nevertheless. (a proof is my 16+ years of steady operatic career).
In fact, I find that with *some* amplification (for example when I sang in open-air spaces), I was able to nuance my singing much more (just like a film actor can nuance their acting, knowing their facial expression can be seen), and it felt wonderful. I believe that mics at the opera should be an option and not a taboo, and whether to use them or not, should be decided upon for each individual case.

Apr. 26 2011 03:01 AM
ToscaLover from NYC

Hi Fred!!!

I think this question is as simple as whether or not they should lower the basketball hoop for NBA players that aren't tall enough to slam dunk the ball.

If your voice is too small for the rep DON'T sing it. Big houses should have BIG voices. If you want to sing Violetta.. and you normally sing Fille or Pamina go sing it in a smaller house or Bayreuth where the house is built to have the voice fly over the orchestra more easily. Don't sing it at the Met.

If you want to hear amplified voices go to an HD broadcast and you can hear the edited version... they are impressive.. but they do not capture the magic of what the voice really sounds like. Using mics does the same thing.

There was talk of having Kristin Chenoweth sing at the Met. She would have clearly had to have a microphone. Yes she is cute, and her babydoll voice works for her Broadway roles, but she can not and should not sing a role written for Marilyn Horne at the Metropolitan Opera. It takes away from Ms. Horne who earned her place with the Opera greats.

The only reason we consider using mics is so that opera houses can cast hot, beautiful people who can't sing the music as it is written. If I want to see a hot girl sing with amplification and autotune (the next step would be using autotune at the opera) I'd turn on the t.v. or go to the movies where you can see more anyway.

Maria Callas, Bjorling, Diana Soviero, Debbie Voigt, Tebaldi, Horne, Borodina, Joan Sutherland, Caruso, June Anderson and many many more did not use microphones and I don't think the art form should be cheapened or dumbed down so that singers who don't know what they are doing or can't sing can be cast.
It will never give you the chills hearing Aprile Millo and Ben Heppner give you when you hear they let loose on duet in Andrea Chenier.

Opera has the potential to give you an emotional, physical, and other worldly response, but it absolutely will not if real singers aren't singing.

If you are pro amplification.. maybe you should rethink that and be pro good casting.

This does bring up one point. A lot of people think there aren't big voices like there used to be. There are... most just aren't getting cast. The way the opera world works now is if you have a big voice you can only sing big rep. Well younger voices shouldn't be singing the biggest rep out their just because the size of their voice is big. Why not hire some big voiced youngsters to sing Cosi??? The last Cosi I heard had a Fiordiligi who had a smaller voice than Despina! All of the famous voices we know started out singing smaller roles. Price, Horne, Pavarotti, and Fleming have all sung Mozart. When was the last time you heard "Ah, guarda sorella" sung by voices like Price or Horne?

Just my opinion.


Apr. 26 2011 01:49 AM
Nancy Heliwg from Cincinnati, Ohio

I am firmly in the camp of "No" regarding microphones in opera performances. I have heard miked performances in opera houses, and they are invariably very discernible, distorting and distracting. Microphones cheat opera-goers of one of the great aural experiences - the glory of a human voice, producing sound that is awe-inspiring, shimmering in the air like a jewel and soaring through (usually) vast spaces. As one whose earliest opera experiences were semi-open-air (the Cincinnati Zoo - yes, Zoo!) with no amplification, no amplified speaker (even with modern advances in sound) could capture accurately the glory of the sounds produced by great singers and a great orchestra, and no amplification was needed even in that open-air venue. It has been my experience that even recordings fail to accurately capture certain indefinable qualities of voices that make them great. I believe that the younger generation will become captive opera audiences simply because un-amplified opera is so different from the concerts they normally attend; it is so amazing to hear that unique sound, unavailable even in the best HD broadcast or on DVD! I hope opera houses will not cheat future generations out of this incredible experience by miking performances. And I agree that the ones that do should make full disclosure of the use of "sound enhancement", or be guilty of defrauding the public!

Apr. 26 2011 01:12 AM
tenor from Manhattan, New York

As a former rock singer with 10 years of gigging, and a current professional Spinto Tenor with almost 20 years of performing experience, I have to say that this is among the most important issues facing the classical arts, and that amplification in the opera house is A BAD IDEA, with only a few exceptions.

Truly, the difference between "Classical" and "Pop" is an issue of "Legit, unamplified" versus "pop, amplified" voices. If you have experienced live, 3D, thrilling sound from a 100-piece orchestra, 150-voice chorus, and a battalion of soaring soloists, there is no substitute. Assuming you have ears enough to hear the difference and real blood coursing through your veins.

Don't get me wrong, as a former rocker I LOVE it loud. I love an arena rock gig or a broadway rock show just as much as a night at the opera, but they are different things. Nobody suggests they mic the NY Phil, do they? At least, not when there is a suitable acoustic alternative.

Miking distorts the voice, particularly large voices, and tends to selectively amplify parts of the spectrum, making large voices sound shrill and small in comparison to much smaller instruments. The full, rich, natural color of a big Italian or Wagnerian voice is lost with amplification. By contrast, children and tenorinos sound gargantuan.

Also, as in an operatic performance, the voice is part of the fabric of the orchestral ensemble and should be treated as such. The players in the pit need to listen sensitively to the singers, as if they were playing a string quartet. If you amplify one part of the ensemble but not the rest, you throw the whole thing off balance and you miss out on the sound world the composer was creating. (So I actually don't mind amplification of outdoor concerts...then at least everybody sounds equally lousy!)

There is also a technical aspect: even some of the greatest venues in the world (like the Met) have to date achieved only mediocre sound quality in their broadcasts and recordings. Perhaps some day technology will advance to the point that operatic voices can be reproduced in a realistic fashion, but anyone with ears knows that this is currently far from the case. Radio and HD movie theater broadcasts have their value, but nobody can seriously think that they are a substitute for the real thing, can they? That's like saying you don't need to experience the great wonders of the world when you can just see pictures.

I do make exception for venue (outdoor concerts) and new, hybrid genre works where the amplification is unabashed, announced in the program (or made very obvious), and necessary because of the presence of other amplified instruments (i.e. rock guitars) or 'taped' instruments, synth noises, samples, etc...

Apr. 26 2011 12:08 AM
Amanda Woodward

I admit I am a purest when it comes to Opera. I believe a well trained, or naturally gifted performer can emote thru a piece regardless of amplification methods. I appreciate the sound resonating off of a well amplified or "live" house, as opposed to a mic'ed performer, with the exception of the need to special effects. However, I also believe that the effects could be created with the voice or instrument.

I also feel that so many singers too often rely on the false amplification of the microphone and therefore they do not create the same intensity or work as hard to create the crescendos and variations the performer that relied solely on their voice for projection would be able to deliver. Such a purest.

But this comes from listening to opera performed both mic'ed and unmic'ed. I do not think it a terrible thing to use area mics or body mics, but feel you miss out of the purest sound thru a mic.

There is also great room for distortion in the use of mics, if a mic is not EQ'd correctly is could ruin the sound and the experience the audience is getting. And if the mic goes in the middle of the show...well if the performer has not trained themselves to sing without a mic then they could damage their voice in an attempt to be heard. I have been a part of too many shows where the performer relies on the mic and when the mic fails, they fail to step up because their tool has not been working as hard and can't adapt.

I find the last paragraph more true in the younger generation.

These are simply my humble thoughts on the matter. I work in theater and constantly wonder if this new generation of singers would be able to perform without a mic and actually me heard.

For me, the voice is an instrument that can be mic'ed for certain situations, but in opera, I'd prefer they keep it pure and clean.

Apr. 25 2011 11:57 PM
The Unrepentant Pelleastrian from Teaneck, New Jersey

Hi Fred,

I feel very passionately about this issue... I am ALL IN FAVOR of adopting some type of amplification in all opera houses. There is nothing more thrilling than having an excellent volume (with some reverb) all throughout.

By the way, I have always been opposed to translation titles and stage/visual gimmickry; they could get rid of all of that tomorrrow and I'd welcome it.... But amplification is my dream.

If anything will attract and get more people excited about opera today it is this.


Apr. 25 2011 10:25 PM

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