When it comes to bel canto, might a microphone or two might help it come over a little more ‘con belto’?

Let’s talk about opera. The art form is in a lot of trouble around the world. It is expensive to mount, ticket prices are high. More and more young singers are  fighting for fewer and fewer roles in fewer and fewer productions of fewer and fewer operas. But does opera deliver enough bang for the very sizeable buck that it charges? Sometimes I think not.

Two experiences in London this week tellingly made the point. Last night I went to English National Opera’s Madam Butterfly. I was in stalls, row M, not too far from the stage, but the orchestra under Sir Richard Armstong was playing with such gusto that the singers fought to be heard in the vast auditorium. Butterfly and Pinkerton did their best to cut through the mighty orchestral soundtrack, but it reminded me of Buzz Lightyear’s comment in Toy Story – “that wasn’t singing, it was screaming with style”. At certain key moments, when the singers were at their most passionate, the director (the late Anthony Minghella) had them so far upstage that their voices had to travel a further 40 feet to join the wall of sound coming from the pit. Consequently, the end of act one, that should be so sexy and exhilarating, landed with a dull thud and moderate applause from the audience. 

Now let’s look at another theatrical experience. The Book of Mormon has been playing to packed houses across the world. Ribald, bawdy, witty, crude, contemporary, the Prince of Wales Theatre was packed to the rafters with people ready to have a good time. Musicals are fully miked so every word was heard, and the balance of singers and orchestra was perfect, wherever you were sitting in the house. The audience whooped and were engaged and entertained in a high-octane fashion. 

Of course it is unfair to compare Madam Butterfly, a poignant tragedy with the witty filth of The Book Of Mormon, but both were playing in London, both are entertainments, and tickets cost roughly the same. One delivered and one didn’t, and sound was one of the main differences. 

I really think that opera companies should just bite the bullet and start to use amplification. The houses are too big for many of the voices to cut through and as a consequence audiences are leaving with a less than exciting experience. Amplification is seen as such a dirty word. There was concern at the Met recently when Diana Damrau appeared to be wearing a head mike during a performance of La Traviata.  This was simply to pick up better sound for the HD broadcast, but it made the opera afficionados suspicious. The Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja even wrote in his blog “I am ready to take one for the team and offer any ‘journalist’ or ‘conspirator’ the opportunity to check me for any ‘futuristic amplification devices’ right before going on stage and right after stepping out of it on the wings… if I am guilty I will eat a microphone.”

Opera companies should just bite the bullet and start to use amplification

Is it really necessary to consume an expensive radio mike and battery pack to prove the point? The problem is that conductors in particular hate handing over the balance of an opera to a sound mixer at the back of the theatre. In fact, when ABC Classic FM broadcast Opera Australia’s production of Un Ballo in Maschera, the conductor took exception to the amount of reverb that the ABC engineers added to make it sound decent for broadcast, rather than the natural dessication of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. The conductor wanted it to sound like he heard it, even if that was a much worse result than the more polished broadcast! This is all about control and not about the end product. I sincerely hope that opera doesn’t disappear in a puff of purist smoke. And if it does, might we not even be able to hear it?

Like bel canto? Give this album a listen