Finding out that I was going to be recording the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s concert performance of Tristan und Isolde for ABC Classic was very exciting. I knew immediately that it was going to be a large challenge, and would involve a lot of time and hard work. But these opportunities don’t come around very often – and I knew that with conductor Asher Fisch, heldentenor Stuart Skelton as Tristan, soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin as Isolde, and all the other great singers involved, it was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Microphones record WASO’s Tristan und Isolde

I had a wonderful head start for Tristan because I had recorded Stuart’s recital album, Shining Knight, just a few months before – in the same hall, with the same orchestra and the same conductor. It was a terrific exercise in discovering what was needed to make Tristan work. It was also a good opportunity to get to know Stuart, to see what he was like as a singer, and how to work with him. And it was very useful in terms of gaining the trust and goodwill of the orchestra and all of the administration; it meant that when I arrived to start working on Tristan und Isolde I was able to ask for things that might have seemed a bit out of the ordinary, or a bit over the top. But they were always very accommodating, especially because that first album had turned out so brilliantly and been so successful.

But Tristan is a very different proposition. It seems redundant to say that it is huge, but it really is huge. And it is also incredibly complex. There are lots of incidental parts – offstage horn ensemble, offstage cor anglais, offstage singers in various positions, offstage chorus – so there’s a lot going on. There are never many singers on stage at any one time, but people are constantly coming and going, and singing from different positions. So although it was being staged as a concert instead of a full opera production, singers aren’t going to just stand still, they want to move around and act a little bit, and so you have to be prepared for that when you are recording.    

In planning the microphone setup, we wanted to make sure that we could capture the singers and the orchestra so that they would sound beautiful on the recording, but we also had to ensure that the recording wasn’t going to interfere with their performance. If the singers are self-conscious of microphones, or if I’m asking them to alter their performance to accommodate the recording, you are going to end up with a poor performance as well as an average-sounding recording.

So we had to have two levels of microphones to capture the singers. Along the front of the stage we had what we call ‘Pavarotti mics’ – small, very attractive microphones that are perfect for concert recordings. It allows you to capture the singer very well, but it’s not a visually ugly looking thing. You can get a good quality microphone close to a singer without it looking really hideous!

In addition to those, we then had another pair of microphones hanging from the ceiling above the heads of the singers, and another pair further out towards the audience. These four microphones caught a more ambient version of the singers so you weren’t just getting a sense of the singers standing right in front of the microphone, which would sound strange in the recording, as if they were standing two feet in front of you, which you don’t really want.

I’ve mixed it so that you get a blend of these close mics so you can hear all the detail of their voices, you can hear the words they are singing, you can hear the quality of their sound. And when the orchestra gets really loud, with the balance of these more distant microphones, you can re-create the effect of the singer on stage, standing in front of the orchestra.

This recording has been every bit as challenging as I imagined, but also every bit as exciting. It was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and between this incredible cast of singers and wonderful orchestra, I believe we have produced a once-in-a-lifetime recording.

Tristan und Isolde is out now on ABC Classic