Monday, March 14, 2011

Hoisted from the Comments: Amplification

A comment on my last posting from the user known as The Unrepentent Pelleastrian deserves its own discuss:
Lisa,
No other issue in opera gets me more worked up than whether or not to use some type of amplification.
I enthusiastically APPROVE of it. As a matter of fact nothing would make me happier than to see opera managers focus primarily on the aural experience over the dramatic. Today things are just getting out of hand with all the focus on the visual (titles, scenery, Mr. Regie whatever, 3-D. 
Enough.
I have also heard people complain that the voices/music often sounded like a 'distant murmur' depending on where they sat.... Now that is frustrating. 
I don't know why but my hunch is that Wagner would have embraced amplification as well.  
(Ah, nothing like hearing the raspy Mime on good volume or Siegfried pound that anvil with some good amps) 
Fasolt, Fafner, Erda, Donner.. .
Hindemith's Cardillac, Verdi's Falstaff, Pfitzner's Palestrina, Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, Messiaen's Saint Francis of Assisi, Smetana's The Bartered Bride, Lehar's The Merry Widow... the list goes on.  
No seriously, I think we need to understand what electro-acoustic sound enhancement systems can offer before we dismiss them. 


First, you can try to figure out for yourself how much of the above is serious. I'm not going to respond to every point. I will respond to a few, though.


1. "Wagner would have...." with just about anything coming where I've put ellipses is a straw man. We just don't know and it's not useful to try to guess unless it's something he specifically wrote about.


2. I have no idea what that list of operas is about.


3. "I think we need to understand what electro-acoustic sound enhancement system can offer before we dismiss them."


Um. We know what they can do because we've heard examples of this for the last 85 years.


You can hear the effect of amplification on singing in both the popular realm, since everybody has been amplified since the mid-1920s or early 1930s, and in opera. 


Before amplification, there was one way to sing and (with some national differences) all singers, regardless of what they sang, learned to sing in pretty much the same way. But the advent of amplification created a split. Microphone singers don't need to project to the back of the hall; they don't need to enunciate in quite the same way, they don't need the same support. They can whisper, croon, have a tiny voice, and still be heard.


You can hear the effects of amplification in opera by simply attending any vocal work by John Adams. Vocal perspective goes right out the door; hall resonance is eliminated as a factor; the composer doesn't need to pay as much attention to his orchestration; the musical landscape is flattened. It sounds a lot worse than naturally sung opera.


Sid Chen, aka The Standing Room, is classically trained. A few years back, he did some vocal work that was amplified and mentioned in passing on his blog that he had to unlearn an awful lot to be successful.


Amplification in opera: a bad, bad idea.

22 comments:

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

Lisa,

I'm flattered that you chose to spotlight my comment. People invariably dismiss me as an "eccentric" who worships at the shrine of Pelleas et Melisande and Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun

Thanks.

First, you can try to figure out for yourself how much of the above is serious

My ideas and words were intended in dead earnest. Amplification is the last great hope in my opinion.

Also, when I started getting into opera in my teens it was mostly through recordings in the privacy of my home. I'd say 90 percent... Why can't curious and sensitive young people today do the same thing? It's really the only way one can truly assimilate and come to know and love the great masterpieces -- through patient, careful and numerous listenings with one's heart.

What is it with all of the silly marketing and outreach today ??

Don't people own records? Aren't they excited to spend hours and their free time closely listening on their stereos?

Listening and studying the great masterpieces in the privacy of my home was (and continues to be) for me the most thrilling activity. There is nothing more fun.

Don't most people get this?

Of course I enjoy going to the MET on occasion (I'm from Palisades Park, New Jersey) and donate what I can, but that never compared to being able to get to know so many works in such detail at home.

I cannot begin to describe how many times solitary listening lifts me to the heights of aesthetic experience. There is just something so special about being alone with the operas.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Listening to records to get to know a work: what has that got to do with amplifying live performances?

Of course there's an alternative to listening to get to know a work: get the score and study it.

sfmike said...

Dear Lisa: You're being mean. U.P. is absolutely sincere in his desire to be "alone with the operas," which is an odd but totally defensible aesthetic. "Getting the score and studying it" is only for those who play instruments/sing and can read scores. Recordings are for everyone.

Having said that, I completely agree with you about amplification in the opera house. The sound, even in our 21st century, is still crappy, flattened out, choose your own derisive adjective. It's not the saviour of anything.

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

Lisa,

Listening to records to get to know a work: what has that got to do with amplifying live performances?

Like I said, generally speaking opera sounds better through a stereo system than from a stage. Yes, I know most people will dismiss this as absurd but it's how I really feel. On the other hand I've never been to Bayreuth so maybe I shouldn't make a blanket statement.

I just find digital sound enhancement to be wonderful and I think it can be incorporated in a way that doesn't destroy the delicate dynamics that the genre requires.

Also, I happen to agree with Harold Schonberg, the New York Times critic from the 1970's who wrote:

"Operas don't remain in the repertory because they have a great libretto/drama. They remain because the music (orchestral and vocal sounds) are great..."


Of course there's an alternative to listening to get to know a work: get the score and study it.

The problem is that I'm not a musician. And sadly, I have absolutely no aptitude for music.

pjwv said...

Another thing that always occurs to me when listening to amplified "live" opera: Why am I paying those exorbitant prices for electronically filtered sound? It would be easier and much, much cheaper to stay home and watch a DVD. I force myself to put up with audiences and I pay those prices only because that's the only way to get the unfiltered experience. If they start filtering it, why should I bother?

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

Lisa,

Listening to records to get to know a work: what has that got to do with amplifying live performances?

Generally speaking, opera is much more electrifying when it's being piped through a stereo system. Yes, most find this opinion absurd but it's how I really feel. I just find digital sound enhancement to be so wonderful and I think it can be incorporated in a way that doesn't destroy the delicate dynamics that the genre requires.

On the other hand I've never been to Bayreuth so maybe I shouldn't make a blanket statement.

I also agree with Harold Schonberg, the New York Times critic from the 1970's:

"Operas don't remain in the repertory because they have a great libretto/drama. They remain because the music is great..."

In other words, the orchestral and vocal sounds.

Which brings us to opera reviews: There is nothing more boring than critics who comment mostly on the production/drama as opposed to detailed subjective impressions of the music. And this is basically what we have today. I simply couldn't care less about what happens on stage. It shouldn't take more than 2 or 3 lines in a review. Let's put the focus back on the music, please.

Of course there's an alternative to listening to get to know a work: get the score and study it.

The problem is that I'm not a musician. And sadly, I have absolutely no aptitude for music (or anything which entails concrete analysis)

Lisa Hirsch said...

Re considering recordings to be ideal, chacun a son gout. Personally, I hear more in a live performance when I'm right there in the room with the players and singers.

> In other words, the orchestral and vocal sounds.

There's lots more to "the music is great" than just the sounds. There's the matter of form and structure.

> Sadly, I have absolutely no aptitude for music.

Really? I will definitely keep that in mind when I read what you have to say.

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

There's lots more to "the music is great" than just the sounds. There's the matter of form and structure.

Of course.

But ideally that 'architecture' should be felt.

Whether it is consciously observed is academic.

Lisa Hirsch said...

For me, there is no difference between "feeling" and "consciously observing" structure in music. Observation = feeling and NOTICING what I am feeling.

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

Maybe but I'm not sure.

I think musical 'knowledge' is a different thing entirely from an ear for music.

Lisa Hirsch said...

No maybe about it for me. Knowledge and ear build on each other.

Henry Holland said...

Unrepentant Pelleastrian, are you the same person who argued on the Guardan (UK newspaper) classical site that Pelleas et Melisande by Debussy is the greatest thing ever in the history of anything? The monomania and ignorance of anything not to do with Debussy seems familiar.

Lisa, as you know, singing is the least interesting aspect of opera for me, I have no interest in the festishization of the unamplified voice. Given that the rep I love often features 110 piece orchestras, I'm sick and tired of only hearing 1/2 of a singers performance come through, no matter how much the conductor tries to make the sound transparent.

Years ago I went to a Carmen in San Diego and I remarked to the usher afterwards what a powerful voice the Escamillo had.

Usher: See those tiny white spots at the front of the stage?
Me: Yes.
Usher: Those are microphones, that's why you hear everything that he sings.

The amplification was discreet and not overpowering and I got to hear every note the singers sang. Bring it on!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Harry, in a word, yes, very likely he is that person.

I do not think that it's fetishization to ask singers, conductors, and composers to do their jobs properly. That is, singers to sing correctly and in repertory suitable for their voices, conductors to keep the damn orchestra under control and respect the singers, and composers to write music where the singer doesn't have to overpower the orchestra.

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

Henry,

"Are you the same person?"

Yes, I am that person.

Who else could it be?

How many people in the history of the internet have you encountered who are as passionate about Debussy's opera?

I even coined the term 'Pelleastrian' to distinguish it from "Les Pelleastres" -- the nasty article from 1905 by Jules Lafrange who suggested that the cultish following of P&M back then was full of individuals leading debauched lives.

"who argued on the Guardan (UK newspaper) classical site that Pelleas et Melisande by Debussy is the greatest thing ever in the history of anything?"

No, I did not say that.

What I said was that (despite some weaknesses) it was the finest opera of the last 109 years and that though obviously we've seen some glorious ones by Richard Strauss, Pfitzner, Berg, Puccini, Janacek, Britten, Schoenberg, Poulenc and Messian there were none that truly reached the level of sophistication and enchantment found in Debussy.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Regarding that last paragraph, chacun a son gout, but it's an unprovable assertion.

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

"Regarding that last paragraph, chacun a son gout, but it's an unprovable assertion"

True.

But if someone put a gun to my head and told me to choose or if a newbie wanted to get a first taste of opera I'd start them with Genevieve's 'Reading of Golaud's Letter' in Act 1 or with the first orchestral interlude (the Parsifalian sounding one) that leads into that lovely passage. And then if he or she likes it, to the very beginning.

The exquisite and deeply inspired music all throughout Act 1 never ceases to make me want to jump for joy. It just flows really well and I'd want a newcomer to discover it as soon as possible.

(And then it's on to Act 2 which is even more perfect)

Lisa Hirsch said...

I definitely think you should conduct an experiment: take 100 opera newbies and try them on five different experts, with the Pelleas excerpt as one of them.

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

Lisa,

"I definitely think you should conduct an experiment: take 100 opera newbies and try them on five different experts, with the Pelleas excerpt as one of them"

Ok we'll see.

By the way, remember Tommasini's top ten composers list from January?

Two editors from The Guardian newspaper were dismayed to see Debussy ranked highly at number 5.

The general editor wrote:

"But with the high placing for Debussy does it reveal more about the tastes of the east-coast haute bourgeoisie than anything else?"

And culture editor Charlotte Higgins wrote:

"For me, the immediate intakes of breath concern Debussy's prominence"

It is exasperating to read these Debussy skeptics, if one can call them that.

And what the heck does 'east-coast haute bourgeoisie' mean ?!

People still talk this way in 2011 ??

Lisa Hirsch said...

The Guardian? They were just upset that RVW wasn't in that spot.

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

Henry,

I missed this part:

"The monomania and ignorance of anything not to do with Debussy seems familiar"

Well anyone who is an opera nut (like myself) cannot in any way, shape or form be considered 'ignorant'.

Furthermore, anyone who by the age of 24 owns more than 80 percent of the recordings of Herbert von Karajan cannot be called ignorant.

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

SF Mike,

"Lisa: You're being mean. Pelleastrian is absolutely sincere in his desire to be "alone with the operas," which is an odd but totally defensible aesthetic. "Getting the score and studying it" is only for those who play instruments/sing and can read scores. Recordings are for everyone"

Thanks for the support, Mike.

Lisa,

"You have no aptitude for music? Really? I will definitely keep that in mind when I read what you have to say"

Excuse me but possessing knowledge of music theory or being able to follow a score is NOT the basis of aesthetic experience and it does NOT correlate with greater love of the music. What it describes is, but theory is the description, not the object. The unaided listener still has the object without the technical data. We still have ears and we are still fully equipped to hear it.

(And remember that no composer or musician has the slightest clue how other listeners perceive and make sense of music)

Lisa Hirsch said...

Aptitude for music is NOT the same as concrete knowledge of music, such as knowing music theory. Aptitude is inborn ability.

The slightest clue? Oh, I think at this point there are so many written descriptions of the experience of hearing music that I have to disagree.