Thursday, September 24, 2015

Attend the Tale

Baritone Brian Mulligan in the title role of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." 
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Before I get to talking about what I saw and heard last Friday in the War Memorial Opera House, I need to review some history.
  • December, 2012. At the season announcement for 2013-14, David Gockley announces Show Boat and, as far as I can tell from my report of the press conference, tells us the show will not be amplified ("I believe we were also promised that it would not be amplified ("not dependent on mikes stuck down their throats")).
  • June, 2014. Show Boat opens. All of the dialog is amplified and some of the singers are amplified when they sing, those with the smaller - non-operatic - voices. Everybody sounds amplified because of "ambient microphones" in use; there is a nasty halo around the voices of Patricia Racette and Morris Robinson, for example, because of the ambient microphones. I wrote:

    Considering that part of the reason for doing a show like this in an opera house is that Broadway houses don't use full orchestras and don't use singers who can, you know, sing, maybe SFO should only be hiring singers with operatic voices when it does musicals.
  • January, 2014. Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, one of the greatest shows ever, is announced. No press conference; we get press releases instead, so we can't ask on the spot whether there will be amplification or not. Seeing that the cast is all opera singers (Gerald Finley, Stephanie Blythe, Heidi Stober, etc.). I make a bad assumption and don't send a question in email.
  • September 12, 2015. Sweeney Todd opens and everybody is equipped with body mikes, soloists and chorus alike. And it does basically no good at all.
I haven't asked SF Opera why everyone in the production is amplified, because the results are more important, at this point, than the reasoning. It might be something like "we need the dialog amplified and we can't switch the mikes on and off depending on the stage action because the audience would have to adjust its listening so often."

Well, the amplification sounds awful. The chorus is smallish for this show and the amplification makes them sound shallow and the sopranos shrill. They are not either shallow-voiced or shrill. The amplification is distracting, and because microphone technique is somewhat different from full-out vocal technique - or so said Sid Chen years ago when he started singing in Meredith Monk's vocal ensemble - there's a sense that the singers are holding back.

The dialog and song lyrics are very tough to make out, for these reasons:
  • Sondheim's lyrics are incredibly clever and difficult to parse, and there are a lot of words packed in. You don't often catch him writing long melismas; oh, okay, in "Johanna" and probably some of the other songs. But my brain was consistently behind the singers.
  • British accents. Inconsistent British accents, from singer to singer. Brian Mulligan's accent doesn't sound that much like Stephanie Blythe's, and hers is perhaps the broadest and most consistent in the show.
  • The theater is just too damn big for musical theater. (It's too damn big for opera.)
  • The amplification is not done well. It is much too obvious.
  • Terrible balances between the stage and pit. Especially at the beginning of the show last week, the orchestra was too loud.
A big, big sigh from me. I love this show, for its macabre plot, its wonderful songs, and its endlessly inventive lyrics. I have no doubt that the cast is doing its absolute best under the circumstances, but I wish SFO would just turn off the microphones. Maybe the show wouldn't sound better, but maybe it would. At least these great singers could sing out without fear.

All of that said, the production is decent-looking and effective and reasonably well directed. I can't say too much about the acting except at the highest level, because I was in the Dress Circle without my binoculars, a clear case of user stupidity on my part, because even if you have great eyes, you just can't see that much facial detail from that close to the back wall of the theater.

The singing was all very good, as you might expect with Brian Mulligan (Sweeney Todd), Stephanie Blythe (Mrs. Lovett), Heidi Stober (Johanna), Elizabeth Futral (Beggar Woman), Elliot Madore (Anthony), and Wayne Tigges (Judge Turpin). I like Stober more every time I hear her; ditto Mulligan (and I'll be happy to hear him unamplified in Lucia and the Poe double bill). Blythe has great comic talent and of course a hell of a voice, which she does not get to put on display in this show. (And no, I could not understand every word and thank Lotfi for the Supertitles.)

Madore is a newcomer to the company and I was a bit surprised to hear a baritone in this role; I thought it was written for tenor, but a perusal of the show requirements at the licensing company includes vocal ranges rather than voice types.

To wrap this up, a friend asked me whether it was worth seeing the show, and I could not give her an enthusiastic yes. I offered these options:

  • Pay a lot of money for a seat in the orchestra, first 15 rows, dead center.
  • Pay a lot less money for a seat in the balcony, on an OperaVision night.
  • Rent the video with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn.
Next time SFO performs a musical, I'll ask about amplification before I buy my tickets.


E C said...

My understanding is that the amplification is a contractual requirement set by the licensing company. I suspect it is an artistic choice made by Sondheim.

That said, I agree the opera house technical team was not up to the challenge required to stage "Sweeney Todd" with amplification in the Opera House.

Honestly, I wish the opera would drop the b.s. justifications you cite they give for staging musicals. They just don't fly. Broadway is still staging musicals with orchestras and choruses and casts that sufficiently meet the size of their houses. SF Opera is not "bettering" them in this. They SF Opera is not rivalling Broadway in "spectacle" in these productions. And they are not committing to the kind of marketing campaign that will successfully promote their musicals to the general public.

If the SF Opera is going to continue to produce musicals, I wish they would do 3 things. (1) Admit this is not their area of expertise and approach it with humility and a commitment to learning how to stage them well, rather than assuming being an opera company with well trained voices gives them the automatic cache to pull this off; (2) Admit that the reason to stage these works is because they are fun - pure and simple; (3) State that the reason for an American Opera company to produce these works is because they are part of an American tradition of composition and story telling that feeds into and informs the current generation of American Opera.

From what I have read, there are other, smaller, Opera Houses in the U.S. that are successfully adding musical theater into their repertoire. San Francisco is not fully one of them. Yet. I hope going forward the company either fully commits to doing the musical theater its produces or else goes back to it's core mission - and focus on producing the best opera in the Western United States.

Henry Holland said...

I am unequivocal about companies like SFO doing pieces like this: they shouldn't, ever. With all the worthy operas out there from all eras crying out for a production, to spend the time, money and talent on a piece like this just doesn't seem right. I often get the feeling that they're more cynical ticket sales gambits than an intense desire to produce the work because it's crying out for production.

I went to a Carmen in San Diego years ago and it sounded odd. I knew something was up when the baritone singing Escamillo turned his head to the side and the sound didn't change at all. I asked an usher afterwards if they used miking and he pointed to these white circles all around the stage and said they were the microphones.

Lisa Hirsch said...

EC, I'm not sure whether you saw my comment earlier today on another post, but you are incorrect. San Francisco Opera told me that there is no requirement of amplification by Sondheim or the licensing organization, and they send along a copy of the signed contract as well.

Broadway orchestras have been shrinking for decades. I think this is pretty well documented.

Henry, I do think the primary purpose of including musicals is a belief that they will sell tickets and possibly bring in new audience members.

Matthew Travisano said...

The War Memorial is indeed far too big for this show. Certainly La Sondheim feels that opera companies doing his shows gives him serious composer credentials. But artistically it's a terrible thing. I sat next to the "Sweeney" choreographer on a plane ride from London to SF (made for a great flight) and fully admitted to her my reservations about doing it as opera. She was more sanguine about the practice. I was definitely right in the end.

The mics we're atrocious. Unacceptable at a company of SFO's stature. The accent work was spotty. I'm stage a dialect coach, and there were some painful attempts at British and Irish. Ms. Blythe's was far and away the best dialect.

Stagings ranged from very smart in the Pirelli scene to nonsensical at the end of Act I. Act II was sometimes a mess. Voices were strong, though the young lovers did not fare well (time to let Heidi Stober graduate to heavier lyric roles). I enjoyed Mr. Mulligan overall, but his was not a deep Sweeney. And he showed that speaking text is an entirely separate art from singing it. As a teacher of text to actors I wanted desperately to get him into the studio. Ms. Blythe was great fun, and a very smart and knowing Mrs. Lovett. She gets musical theatre even if she fudged some text.

Every general director has their pet projects they foist on us, and I'm hoping this is the last musical (wasn't there talk of another musical in the pipeline though?). That said, given the new general director's absurd suggestion that opera should make people comfortable, we likely haven't seen the end of musicals at the War Memorial.

Unknown said...

Back in the 1970s or 1980s, the Houston Grand Opera staging of "Porgy and Bess" came to the Pantages in Hollywood. As I remember, opening night was miked with disastrous results. Midway through the run, they turned the mics off and discovered that there was a huge improvement. And this was in an era before supertitles. Perhaps SFO should do the same for a performance later in the run of "ST" and see what happens.

Michael said...

I've sung in the chorus for Sweeney and Anthony is definitely a baritone, especially in an opera house. I'm looking forward to Saturday's performance as we're going with option 1.