The Perils (and Art) of Singing with Microphones

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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.