Microphones at the Opera: Reverb, Static and Feedback

Friday, July 19, 2013 - 10:53 AM

microphone (Jody Avirgan/WNYC)

It was no surprise to me that my July 16 article about the use of microphones in opera houses should have engendered a lot of responses. If you have not read that article and the feedback, please do so. While there are numerous comments that appear below the article, I have heard from many more people, including opera singers, via e-mail and the good old telephone. Understandably, most of the singers prefer to remain anonymous so as to protect their careers.

A leading singer wrote to me and said “when we did an opera at New York City Opera a number of years ago, we were all so furious about the ‘sound enhancement’ that we demanded it be turned off. I have been asked to wear (and did once) a body mic for a broadcast - in Italy, of all places - for Parsifal. It was uncomfortable and I refused to wear one ever again.” 

I can assure you that this singer, who can be heard with ease and is profoundly expressive and moving, has no need for a microphone. When artists like this are in our midst, why should we accept ones who are amplified?

Would you accept the results achieved by Olympic sprinters or Tour de France cyclists if you knew those athletes were using performance-enhancing drugs? We expect athletes to perform based on their physical abilities and skills and, I contend, we feel the same way about opera singers. Part of the beauty and excitement about opera is that singers can achieve their glorious sound and expressiveness using purely what their bodies, and their technique, enable them to do.

Some of those commenting said, in effect, that microphones and technology meant to “enhance” sound have improved radically in recent years and the imbalances are much less noticeable than before. Perhaps that is the case, but that is like saying that artificial flavorings and colorings used in food have less of an icky chemical taste than before. They still are fakes.

Part of any truly gratifying sensory experience comes with the fact that our senses are used as they were meant to be. The more attentively we listen, the more we hear. The more we look, the more we see. The more we savor, the more we taste and smell. We come to know the difference between genuine or adulterated, whether in flavors or sounds.

When I teach tasting to young people, I give them crushed ripe strawberries and commercially-produced strawberry “syrup” with its dark red color and overwhelming flavor. Most of the kids opt for the syrup because it is more intense, even if it has none of the exquisite flavor and subtle fragrance of real strawberries at their peak. It takes learning to recognize the superiority of the real fruit but, with that knowledge, we would never accept a fake. With real strawberries versus the syrup, at least we know what we are getting. And packaging labels indicate all of the ingredients. 

If microphones are used for amplification, some audience members may not recognize that it is happening. But, take my word, many of us can hear the difference. There is a tinny sound, an acoustical flatness, and an unmistakable fluctuation in volume that happens when singers are miked and moving around the stage. Also, I have attended performances in which one singer is clearly miked while others are not. That singer always sounds different, and not better. Just different.

There is another point, very important, I wish to address. It regards trust. As I have stated in different contexts in several articles, there exists --there must exist-- a compact of trust between an opera company and its audience. Subscribers, who are precious because they keep an opera company afloat through their consistent support, put their trust in opera companies and give tacit encouragement to those companies to stage works both familiar and rare with the best singers available and in productions that are incisive and artistically valid. 

When an opera company becomes high-handed and manipulates ticket prices based on supply and demand or creates a three-tiered pricing scale in which they charge more for popular operas and stars who are “hot,” they are breaking that compact of trust and driving away devoted opera lovers in droves. This saddens me no end because the art form is being irreparably damaged by the shredding of the fabric that is the regular audience, who leave because they no longer have faith in their local opera company. 

Opera is a live art form -- that is a huge part of its appeal. We can admire the use of technology for extraordinary lighting and scenic effects. But it has absolutely no place in the transmission of sound to the audience present in the theater. Failure to disclose the use of microphones for amplification is a deal-breaker for many opera lovers. They must be advised when subscribing or purchasing individual tickets at the box office. And it should be printed in the house program. If prospective ticket buyers know mikes are being used, they can then decide whether or not they want to attend a performance.

In my July 16 article, I included a link to a June 28 story in The New York Times by Anthony Tommasini. Read it if you have not. Tommasini researched and wrote his piece with great care, but it led some that commented (including one who wrote on the blog page) to think that Diana Damrau was wearing a microphone as Violetta for an HD broadcast of La Traviata. The Met did not do La Traviata on HD in the 2012-2013 season -- it presented L’Elisir d’Amore; Otello; The Tempest; La Clemenza di Tito; Un Ballo in Maschera; Aïda; Les Troyens; Maria Stuarda; Rigoletto; Parsifal; Francesca da Rimini; and Giulio Cesare.

In fact, the Met’s Willy Decker production of La Traviata the Met was put on HD on April 14, 2012. It starred Natalie Dessay as Violetta, with Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Germont, with Fabio Luisi conducting. It will be the first of ten HDs the Met will show for free on Lincoln Center Plaza (Saturday, August 24, 8:00 PM).

The 2013 performances of La Traviata that starred Diana Damrau (with Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo, Plácido Domingo as Germont, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting) were on Mar. 14; Mar. 18; Mar. 23; Mar. 26; Mar. 30; Apr. 3; and Apr. 6. Some (Mar. 14; Mar. 18; Mar. 30; Apr. 3) were broadcast live on Metropolitan Opera Radio Sirius XM channel 74. The March 14 performance was streamed at metopera.org, the Met’s Web site. The Saturday matinee on March 30 was broadcast live on WQXR and all the radio stations of the Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network.

Diana Damrau is a marvelous artist, one of my very favorites now before the public. If the microphone she wore was used only to capture sound for broadcasting, the Met should have announced this in the program distributed to audiences.  And did Ms. Damrau wear a microphone wire on Mar. 23 and 26 and on Apr. 6 when there was no broadcasting? It would be hard to definitively found out now, but it is an important thing to know.

I concur with what Anthony Tommasini wrote: “As someone who cherishes classical music as an art form that glories in natural sound (while fully appreciating that many contemporary composers have used amplification in sonically alluring ways) I get nervous hearing Mr. Gelb talk of camouflaging wires on singer’s bodies. And the Met has certainly kept this practice secret.”

I know this discussion will continue, and it should. I also know that anyone who learns about opera and comes to love it is highly unlikely to accept electronic mediation of singers’s voices in opera houses, most of which have very good acoustics. The Metropolitan Opera House has extraordinary acoustics, apart from the rear Orchestra under the overhang created by the Parterre. 

Rather than use amplification, which is a turnoff to a majority of devoted opera audiences, we need to think of other ways to help singers sound their best without adulteration. I will propose one idea now and I look forward to hearing your own ideas. 

Here is mine: Build sets that are more singer-friendly, such as the one by Paul Steinberg for the Met’s November 2012 production of Un Ballo in Maschera. Audiences may have been divided about David Alden’s staging (I found a fair amount to like), but the shape and material of the scenery was such that the sound of most of the singers projected beautifully into the house. Please don’t tell me mikes were used in Ballo!


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Comments [11]

Jürgen De Blonde from Belgium

Interesting topic. I think that one of the major problems concerning microphones is the way they are perceived as simple tools of amplification. One does not simply set up a microphone to amplify and thus make things "louder & better". Microphones should be seen as (musical) instruments that require a certain technique and a correct usage in order to achieve a decent result. Sadly enough, this awareness is often lacking with performers and/or technicians leading to saddening results. A microphone is not a magic wand. There should be an emancipation of the microphone to lead it out of the dark age of making things "louder and bigger" into becoming a proper instrument that is taught at music schools.

That is not to say that setting up microphones in an opera is a good idea, it is not. Opera, and classical music in general, should be enjoyed unamplified in a good sounding space, because it was created for that. If, for some reason, it has to be amplified, there should be good reasons for that and miking should be done with serious consideration.

Nov. 10 2015 04:23 AM
Aredeedeetoo from Madison, WI

For the most part, I agree with you. But like any rule, I think there are valid exceptions, fir example:

1) Body mikes for principals solely for radio or TV coverage PROVIDING they are visually nonintrusive and don't cause any discomfort to the singers;

2) Certain "speaking" roles in operas, performed by nonsingers, such as the Sheriff in "Porgy and Bess."

3) Sung roles that are often not cast by fully trained opera singers, such as Sportin' Life in "Porgy and Bess" or the 3 Boys in "Zaüberflöte."

Jul. 29 2013 11:42 AM
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Jul. 21 2013 06:10 AM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

It now appears that Tommasini and Plotkin are the Woodward and Bernstein of the "Mikegate" scandal.The wraps are coming off,and people will continue to come forward and expose cases of this practice.We may be surprised by the length of time body miking has been used.As I stated originally,we have not heard the last of this matter.

Jul. 20 2013 03:48 PM
Edward J Hymes from ga

Many years ago, I was an avid fan of Broadway shows. That was until the first show that I saw that was miked, Evita.
I have never returned to Broadway.

Jul. 19 2013 11:36 PM
Julie Leininger Pycior from Hastings-on-Hudson

I never thought that the WQXR website would commit the elemental syntactical error of writing "effect" when "affect" is the correct word.*

"Operavore blogger Fred Plotkin continues his discussion of the contention topic of amplified opera singers through microphone and how it *effects our senses."

Who's writing your copy? Yikes!

Jul. 19 2013 08:13 PM
Sarah Daniel from Ireland

I only started going to see operas in a serious way in 2004. Had the opportunity to see many performances at Covent Garden, LA Opera, Vienna, Parma, and later the Met and San Francisco Opera. There is an inherent loss of auditory 'information' in any amplification system, whether for a 'boost' of some kind live, or for broadcast purposes. High Definition broadcasts capture more information both vocally and in terms of the personality and charisma of the singer. But it's never so wonderful recorded as when I'm actually in the presence of a favorite singer. I once heard a favorite tenor in concert at a festival, singing in a long, narrow hall of a building that used to be a factory. They had a mic standing for him. He didn't hold back on volume or anything else. I was close enough to hear both his real voice and the amplification. I mentally blanked out the amplified sound and had a wonderful experience hearing him so close, so vivid. One of the great musical experiences of my life.

Jul. 19 2013 04:26 PM
Carl Sayres from Seattle

There's an additional issue which must be considered - the singer's technique. As a tenor, when I sing in a hall without a mic, I am listening to the sound reverberate in the room. The resonant cavity of the vocal tract combines with the resonant cavity of the hall to become a single instrument, and I'm subtly adjusting the forments to optimally drive that resonator.

The presence of microphones forces the singer to change their technique. Instead of driving the room, one must drive the microphone. And the problem with that is that microphones prefer small signals. The first thing any sound engineer will do when mic'ing a singer is tell them to sing softly. That may be fine for pop music, or perhaps some broadway. Not opera!

This is why recent studio recordings sound so different from live performances. For example, listen to recent studio recodings by Rollando Villazon. They sound quite beautiful and artistic, but he is using a vastly different technique than he would if he was on stage.

Jul. 19 2013 03:04 PM
Renate Perls from Manhattan

Re: Mikes at the opera.... If a singer has to use a microphone for any reason, you can be sure that singer is not
properly trained and should not be singing at the Met. If an instrument is needed, I would suggest a new teacher who knows how to train a voice correctly so there is support for the natural sound. Then it is really beautiful.

Jul. 19 2013 02:51 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York City

Thank you, Nikhil from Bangalore, for your comments. If you would be so kind, I would love to hear from you about the opera scene in India. Please write to fredelicious@earthlink.net

Jul. 19 2013 02:06 PM
Nikhil Goyal from Bangalore

For me, Opera would lose that certain intimacy with a mic in between the singer and the other person. I agree with Mr. Plotkin, opera singers propose to everyone what they can do with their voices, and a mic would take away from it.
I suppose if the audience is sitting outside the opera hall (For e.g. Vienna State Opera), or if it's an open air performance where it's impossible that everyone would be able to hear and listen, then they need the sound amplified, but only outside. I can see only this need for the mic.
It would be just perfect it there was no rustling about and talking and whispering and commenting, and jeering, and if the mobile phones were turned off or put to their silence, and everyone would participate their own consideration towards the performance art, it would be sufficient to complete the "hear-ability" factor of an opera performance.

Jul. 19 2013 01:42 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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