Earlier this year, critic Anthony Tommasini wrote in The New York Times:
“Baz Luhrmann's hit production of La Bohème is indeed a lively, stylish, and inventive show with a young, sexy, and endearing cast. … Yet from a musical perspective, many veteran opera buffs will be dismayed, as I was, by the compromises the production has made, most grievously in its use of body microphones to amplify the singers and two digital sampling keyboards to fill in the instrumental textures that the meager (for Puccini) 26-piece orchestra leaves blank. Newcomers to opera who think they are experiencing the real thing are not.”
Here we go again.
It usually happens about once a year: a New York critic, usually from The Times, seemingly with no real knowledge of what sound design is or how it works, will come out swinging against this still fledgling art form, blaming it for everything from a bad musical to the death of theatre, or in Tommasini's case, the death of opera. I had actually asked the La Bohème sound design team, Tom Clark, Mark Menard, and Nevin Steinberg of Acme Sound Partners, to write a rebuttal to Tommasini's comments in this issue, but they politely declined.
Well, I ain't so polite. This kind of stuff gets me steamed. Of course, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion; heaven knows I have plenty of them. And just like there are bad plays, bad directors, bad performances, bad sets and costumes, and bad lighting, so too is there bad sound design. Believe me, I've experienced plenty of it over the years.
But I have yet to see a well-articulated criticism of sound design in the theatre (or praise for that matter) that takes into account the various factors that contribute to a successful (or unsuccessful) design: the acoustics of the room, the vision of the director, the voices of the actors, the intrusion of the producer, the orchestration, the set design, etc. If they notice it at all, it usually ends up being something along the lines of “It's too loud” or even occasionally “It's not loud enough.”
Wouldn't it be great if critics had a better understanding of the art of sound design? Better yet, wouldn't it be great if sound designers could get a bunch of critics together in one room and explain it all to them?
You may get your chance. On Friday, June 27, as part of this year's Broadway Sound Master Classes, ED will be hosting a forum titled “Noises Off: The Sound Designer and the Critic.” We'll be asking some of the most respected New York critics, along with some of the most respected sound designers working today, to sit down in a panel format to discuss (and perhaps argue, yell, and cajole, but hopefully not come to blows over) the challenges both sides face when they enter the theatre.
We'll be announcing official participants in the coming weeks; look for more info about this event, the Broadway Lighting and Sound Master Classes, and the annual EDDY Awards, in this space next month. In the meantime, sharpen your … wits. You thought I was going to say knives, didn't you?