Opera companies have long been accused of keeping a secret from their listeners. Critics have claimed that opera — thought of by many as the last bastion of pure musical expression unadulterated by the insidious tentacles of sound equipment — has, in fact, embraced the rise of audio technology, while its audiences have been listening, unaware. The critics are correct, but the situation is by no means as dire or unethical as they would like people to believe.
Most opera companies — such as the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the San Francisco Opera, and the New York City Opera — do employ a sound department, but the responsibilities of the department are limited. Some opera houses, such as the New York State Theatre, utilize electronic acoustic enhancement systems, but these systems are designed to compensate for flaws in a venue's acoustical architecture, not boost the sound levels. Instead, the primary responsibilities of the sound departments are to produce sound effects and use trace amounts of sound reinforcement to augment offstage voices.
Neither the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, nor the San Francisco Opera use traditional, Broadway-style sound reinforcement, in which most if not all singers are equipped with radio microphones mixed to a series of unsightly loudspeakers scattered throughout the theatre. “We don't amplify the onstage singers,” states Rob Gorton, sound engineer at the Metropolitan Opera. “It constantly surprises me how many people think that we amplify.”
At the San Francisco Opera, resident sound designer Roger Gans uses reinforcement only when absolutely necessary. “There is a house system in place for subtle reinforcement — for dialogue in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, for instance,” states Gans. “Very rarely some performers, like small children, are miked.”
“Critics need to look at the demands of the audience, the ability of the performers, and the economics of the show.”
Abe Jacob, New York City Opera
For Abe Jacob, sound designer at the New York City Opera, small children aren't even amplified. “Usually the part is written for a child, with very little orchestration underneath,” he explains. “Often the part is a high soprano part, which can be better perceived by the audience over the orchestra. It's how the composers wrote it.”
However, subtle reinforcement of offstage voices may be essential to a particular piece. “It's done tastefully, and only when necessary,” says Gorton. “When the Metropolitan Opera House was built, opera scenery was built in the wing-and-drop style. These days, we're dealing with huge, acoustically reflective pieces of scenery — and with such a large house, the audience isn't going to be able to hear offstage singers in some operas.”
In the San Francisco Opera's production of Parsifal, a number of “remote choruses” were located in the hallways outside the organ bays. Localized loudspeakers were provided by Gans and his crew to delicately augment the singers' voices in the less-than-optimum locations.
Some minor reinforcement is occasionally used for orchestra instruments at the Metropolitan Opera. “These days, the music staff is not content to not hear the musical instruments that are supposed to be there,” says Gorton. For a production of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, four offstage mandolins needed to be gently boosted in order to rise above the cacophony of the singers and orchestra.
In other cases, the slight amplification is a stage direction: in Wagner's Seigfried, Wagner stipulates that the voice of Fafner, the dragon, should be sung through a “powerful speaking trumpet.” In a way, that is exactly what opera sound designers employ: a single microphone and loudspeaker set up in the wings or in the set piece. “Occasionally we'll use some reverb on an offstage microphone and loudspeaker for a ‘devilish’ sound,” adds Jacob.
Sound effects have always been a large part of opera, whether it be Puccini's call for church bells in Tosca or Wagner's ubiquitous thunder, and many opera companies are taking the high-tech approach to sound cues.
“It constantly surprises me how many people think that we amplify.”
Rob Gorton, Metropolitan Opera
“We're using more and more sound effects,” says Gans. “Sound design for opera is going forward as the technology improves and we work with fewer people who tend to do opera ‘traditionally, for tradition's sake.’ More people are embracing the technology — they are realizing that it has something to offer when it is used in support of the piece.”
“Some directors and musical directors are starting to take an interest in approaching the theatricality of the piece as well as the musicality,” reports Gorton, who has been a theatrical sound designer as well as the sound supervisor at the Yale School of Drama. “Coming from a theatrical environment, I think that's great.”
Gans' system includes a variety of Meyer loudspeakers used specifically for “repertory” systems — larger, semi-permanently mounted positions, and small, portable systems for effects playback or offstage monitoring. The extensive house system in the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House includes state-of-the-art Meyer loudspeakers — CQ-1s, CQ-2s (Gans was instrumental in spurring on the design of the CQ-2), UPM-1s, and UPA-2Cs — controlled by a Euphonix 2000B mixing desk, TC Electronics delays, and Meyer CP-10 equalizers. EMU E6400 samplers, used with a variety of controllers, provide the playback for the system.
Both the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera have similar systems — the Met system includes Meyer CQ-1s, 650Ps, UPA-1s, and MSL-4 cabinets; additionally, a number of loudspeakers are semi-permanently mounted in the domes above the audience, perfect for otherworldly effects. The system is ultimately overseen by head of sound PJ Volpe, with whom Gorton works closely in order to create the best possible product.
In Jacob's system, Meyer loudspeakers powered by Crown amplifiers are controlled via a Yamaha PM-series console, and playback equipment includes everything from samplers to minidisk to reel-to-reel to DAT. In some situations, sound effects are triggered by a keyboard located offstage or in the orchestra pit and reproduced through a localized loudspeaker system.
While sound effects and the use of microphones for offstage choruses is grudgingly accepted by opera critics, adjusting the acoustic environment of the opera house is met with far more Wagnerian vitriol.
Many opera purists feel that the only solution to a bad-sounding opera house is a new opera house, but many companies cannot afford renovation or reconstruction and have turned to acoustic enhancement as an antidote.
In the old days, concert halls were built for a specific purpose, and thus exhibited acoustic characteristics that were better suited for one type of performance than others. Acousticians agree that spoken-word performances require a hall capable of strong early reflections from the front to provide adequate loudness to be heard and localized to the stage, coupled with a short reverberation time — less than 100ms — so as not to dull the articulation of the speech. Symphony orchestras, on the other hand, are better served with a longer reverberation time — around two seconds — to blend the sounds from all parts of the orchestra, with strong lateral reflections to give the audience a sense of spaciousness. Opera, however, requires a combination of the two: strong early reflections from the front to aid intelligibility and a long-enough reverberation time to blend the orchestral sound without detrimental effects to the vocals.
The acoustic enhancement system enhances the natural acoustics of the venue, as opposed to the sound reinforcement system, which is used to provide uniform sound coverage to all areas of a venue. Most enhancement systems, including LARES, the Lexicon Acoustic Reinforcement and Enhancement System, and SIAP, the System for Improved Acoustic Performance, operate by placing microphones in close proximity to the direct sound source on the stage or in the orchestra pit, and process a mix of the signals with delay, phase, and frequency-response changes. The resulting signal is fed to a large number of loudspeakers placed in extremities of the performance venue. VRAS, the Variable Room Acoustics System from Level Control Systems, works in similar fashion but uses different algorithms based on microphones placed around the room.
A number of venues utilize acoustic enhancement systems, including the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin, and the Hummingbird Centre in Toronto, which both use a LARES system; many theatres, such as the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, the Royal National Theatre in London, and the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in New York City, use the SIAP system. There are rumors that a number of prestigious European opera houses use such systems, but opera management has been understandably quiet.
The New York State Theatre, home to the New York City Opera, utilizes the Acoustic Control System (ACS), developed in the Netherlands and installed in the summer of 1999. “The reason for the New York City Opera's use of electronic measures stems from the fact that the State Theatre was built for the New York City Ballet,” begins Abe Jacob. “Obviously the first requirement of ballet was that the sound off the stage, including dancers' footfalls, was not to be heard — exactly the opposite of what you need for opera or dramatic presentation.”
For years, opera buffs and critics alike decried the State Theatre's poor acoustics. When the City Opera publicly announced the installation of the system, critics postulated that acoustic enhancement systems would lead to Broadway-scale sound reinforcement systems in opera. “A line has been crossed, and I fear the worst,” wrote New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini. “Opera, as it has existed since a group of Florentine composers and poets more or less invented it around 1600, may be about to change forever.”
Both Paul Kellogg, general and artistic director of the New York City Opera, and Abe Jacob maintain that the system is merely enhancement. “Rather than rebuilding the space, an electronic system is used to augment the architecture of the room, not the quality of the singers. There is no adjustment of volume,” declares Jacob. “We're tampering with the walls, not with the voice.”
The ACS system even allows the City Opera to adjust the hall's response based on the type of performance: “The presets are available to change the characteristics of the reverberation based on the scenery and type of piece,” explains Jacob. “A concise opera with a hard-walled set requires less energy than a wide-open stage with a large chorus.”
In spite of the uproar, the acoustic enhancement system at New York City Opera is here to stay; the company recently decided to purchase the ACS system, having used it on loan since its installation.
Gans, Gorton, and Jacob all agree that acoustic enhancement has its place, especially in badly designed venues. “Multipurpose performing-arts centers are doing everything from Broadway tours to ballet to symphony orchestras,” says Jacob. “Technology allows that to happen by treating walls with electronic enhancement. It's not a bad thing.”
But will opera houses soon be infested by large clusters of monolithic loudspeakers? “I don't think anyone would want that to happen,” says Gans. “However, people in the business are opening up to the idea of using sound equipment. Reinforcement is viable these days, as long as you're approaching it on an artistic level. It's our responsibility to use whatever ideas and technologies are available in service to the art. Many of the artists who created these pieces made use of the latest thinking of the day in their works.”
The three are also seeing trends in opera patrons that could encourage the development of sound design in opera. The new generation of opera fans — especially at City Opera, which prides itself on attracting new opera buffs — are following the same trends that occurred when sound amplification was first introduced. “Nowadays, the audience demand is based on what they hear at home,” states Jacob.
“People's expectations are higher,” affirms Gans. “They have CD players in the car. The quality is there, and people are spoiled. There is more demand for sound reinforcement for people who want to hear what they expect.”
Gorton continues, “The audience's knowledge of current operatic voices is based on a recording, which can be completely different from what it sounds like in a theatre. If you've only heard opera on recordings, you have to work to hear the opera in this house. It demands audience participation.”
“It's our responsibility to use whatever ideas and technologies are available in service to the art.”
Roger Gans, San Francisco Opera
In addition, Jacob sees changes in opera performers, fostering the need for technological help. “The profession is gearing toward immediate acceleration,” he says. “Up-and-coming singers aren't training for a long time before their big break to the large-house opera stage. They're training harder and quicker, which gives them less of a period during which to build their voices.”
“Not to mention that in order for the operatic art form to survive, we're starting to play to larger houses. When Pavarotti performed at Madison Square Garden, he needed to be reinforced,” remarks Gorton.
“Critics need to look at the demands of the audience, the ability of the performers, and the economics of the show,” continues Jacob. “We're striving for the best possible performance given the circumstances. We help the audience understand what they're listening to.”
Instead, critics maintain that Abe Jacob will be partly responsible for the demise of the operatic art form, much in the same way that musical theatre critics prosecuted him for bringing the wireless microphone to Broadway. Retorts Jacob, “I think destroying two major art forms is a great achievement!”
Opera reviewers have been kinder to Gorton. “All of the critics I know are aware that the Met is unamplified,” he says. “Most of what we do is fix television monitors and make sure the Clear-Com system works.”
Perhaps opera's secret is that opera has no secrets.