Mystery score

Mystery score

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

At Berkeley Rep

This past weekend I had the rare opportunity to see four operas, all new to me, on two consecutive evenings: the Stravinsky double bill at San Francisco Symphony, which I reviewed for SFCV, and the Czech double bill at Berkeley Rep, consisting of Martinu's Comedy on the Bridge and Krása's Brundibar. Both of the latter were performed with new English librettos by playwright Tony Kushner; production designs (charming!) are by Maurice Sendak with Kris Stone.

They are both excellent pieces, well performed; if you're interested in Czech opera or music related to the Holocaust - Brundibar was famously performed many times at the Terezín concentration camp - I would encourage you to go see them.

However, there is a big warning that must be attached to the production:

AMPLIFICATION IN USE. Really bad amplification.

It was so distracting that I might well have walked out, but I had taken a friend as thanks for a great favor, and of course I did want to see the pieces.

I find the use of amplification almost completely incomprehensible:
  • The Roda Theater seats all of 600.

  • The theater is new, well-designed, and has good acoustics.

  • The orchestra was amplified even though it's under the stage and consists of maybe a dozen instruments.

  • All of the singers were amplified.

To me, this means that the production team doesn't trust the music to work (that is, has no faith in the composers' skill), doesn't trust the conductor to balance the singers and orchestra, doesn't believe they hired singers who can be heard in a tiny theater over a chamber orchestra, doesn't trust the audience to listen carefully. In my experience, every time there's been music in any Berkeley Rep production, it is amplified, even if it's a guy with a guitar. This is crazy: the amplification is distracting, unnatural, and flattens the dynamic range of the singers. I find amplified music much harder to listen to than unamplified music.

I understand amplifying children, if it's done carefully. It's hard to argue, for example, with the decision of the San Francisco Opera to put a microphone on the 8-year-old who sang Amore in L'incoronazione di Poppea in 1998 - but that was in the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House, not the 600-seat Roda. But I don't want to go to the theater and hear the orchestra coming from speakers to my left and the soprano coming from a speaker over my head. I want to hear the orchestra coming from the pit and the singers' voices coming from the stage. I spoke to some friends the next day and they all felt the same. So, I'm sending a letter about this to Tony Taccone, in hopes that maybe Berkeley Rep will listen.

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