Friday, February 04, 2011

Compare and Contrast 20

Nixon in China finally reaches the Metropolitan Opera House. Anthony Tommasini and Martin Bernheimer report rather differently on the effects of amplifying the singers:
  • Tommasini, in the NY TimesAs with all his operas, Mr. Adams insisted that the singers wear body microphones. But even with amplification, the voices did not always emerge from the thick orchestration, with its synthesizer, two pianos, four saxophones and brasses aplenty.
  • Bernheimer, in the Financial TimesAnd Adams' insistence on (over)amplifying the voices creates grotesque distortion.....[paragraphs later] The cast looked terrific, acted with ardour and, thanks to the microphones, sounded pretty awful.
Those comments are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and I'd suggest reading both reviews carefully. While Tommasini sounds like more of a fan of the opera than Bernheimer, read together the reviews aren't very far apart at all in assessing the particular weaknesses of the score. Their assessments of the singers are consistent. Tommasini is allowed a considerably larger word count than Bernheimer, who of necessity is terser and can't wax eloquent on what he does like. Importantly, he takes the space needed to note his own partial reassessment of Nixon.

I myself am curious about where each was sitting and what effect that might have had on the effects of the amplification. In the orchestra, of course, but where?

Readers of this blog know that I find it disappointing - okay, sometimes maddening - that Adams insists on the use of microphones. He has said himself that he doesn't care for typical operatic singing style, but he doesn't seem to get that amplifying the singers makes it worse for the audience and has a flattening and distancing effect on what the audience hears. I wish he would drop this and work differently with the singers.


John Marcher said...

On the NYT page there area also links to the first reviews from the Houston and Brooklyn performances in 1987. From Houston Donal Henahan wrote "worth a few giggles but hardly a strong candidate for the standard repertory."

Lisa Hirsch said...

Henahan was amazingly dismissive. Rockwell's review of the Brooklyn performances is both more positive and fairer. I do note that just about every reviewer comments on the extended-recitative vocal-writing style.

Kevin said...

Yeah, well, then again, while Mr. Adams is a fine (extraordinary?) musician, he is totally dependent upon some technology (i.e. Finale, Sibelius or something) to aid his composition. Dynamics, via microphones, just don't translate very well to live musicians and the concert hall, when the conception is tied directly to the computer that does it for you.

I love NIC as much as anyone, but there are things in it, like the amplification, that impede its sustainability as a performance piece. That is, the great variability of its performance doesn't help its cause.

Steve Hicken said...

What do you mean about dependence on notation software?

Lisa Hirsch said...

I was wondering exactly what Steve is wondering, also about wondering what you mean about the "great variability of its performance." There's always a ton of variation in opera performance.

Henry Holland said...

I wonder too. A lot of composers use notational software, the days of slaving over a full score with a pencil and eraser are gone if you want them to be. My score of Birtwistle's Second Mrs. Kong is the full score done in the hand of a copyist and yikes! what a chore that must be.

He could also use it to test out orchestrations, a valuable tool that potentially saves a lot of time and rehearsal money. However, if he uses it to actually compose music, then that might make Alex Ross cry.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Composers have different compositional processes, to put it mildly. Some do extensive sketching on paper; some compose at the keyboard (Saariho does this). Contrast what we know about Mozart (comparatively few sketches) and Beethoven (extensive sketcher). Irving Berlin had a weird transposing piano because to the extent that he could play piano, he could only play in C major.

Some of this must depend on how visual/spatial a composer is, too. Even among composers, I assume there is variability in how well they can look at a page and know how it will sound.

It's an individual thing, and I can't think of any reason to criticize how a composer gets the notes down on paper.

Henry Holland said...

Britten would take walks, compose the music in his head and then come home and put it down on paper in one sitting, he very rarely used a piano to work things out.

Strauss at a certain point (i.e. after Salome made him a wealthy man) would rather have played cards than composed, Pauline would allegedly lock him in a room with his score paper and pencils if he was under a deadline.

*sigh* I wanted to be a composer so badly in my 20's, I just didn't have IT, that spark of talent that often seems to manifest itself at a young age.

Lisa Hirsch said...

So? Janacek didn't get going for real until his 50s!