Recently while in New York, my wife and I saw the production of La Bohème directed by Baz Luhrmann and currently playing on Broadway. This production has attracted a lot of media attention, not only because it’s directed by Luhrmann, currently one of Hollywood’s favourite directors, but also because it’s sung in the original Italian, features young, classically trained singers, and is playing on Broadway, an unusual location for “traditional” opera in New York.
My wife and I both enjoyed the performance, which was clearly the source for much of the style and content of Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge (this production of La Bohème is largely 13 years old having been first produced by Australian Opera in 1989). However, we wondered about the use of microphones during the performance. We couldn’t decide if all the singers’ voices were amplified or not. In the end we concluded they were all wearing microphones, but were perhaps being amplified to different degrees at different times. There was no doubt that the production’s sound quality was given a great deal of care and attention. Amplified voices are normally very easy to detect in traditional theatres, but in this case it really required some careful listening to work out what was going on.
A few days after we attended a matinée performance, Anthony Tommasini, writing in The New York Times, criticised the production’s use of amplification (see Look What They’re Doing to Opera):
…from a musical perspective, many veteran opera buffs will be dismayed, as I was, by the compromises the production has made, most grievously in its use of body microphones to amplify the singers and two digital sampling keyboards to fill in the instrumental textures that the meager (for Puccini) 26-piece orchestra leaves blank. Newcomers to opera who think they are experiencing the real thing are not.
The amplification of “La Bohème” at the Broadway Theater is far more subtle than the blasting sound systems so common at musicals these days. Still, the actual voices are flattened into an amplified wall of sound, and the spatial element of operatic singing, with voices coming from different locations on the stage, is completely undermined. It’s sometimes difficult, especially in the crowd scenes, to tell who is singing without checking to see whose lips are moving. And the voices are thrust at you, even those of the milk maids who, as they pass the city gates in Act III, sing a wistful little tune that is supposed to be subdued and gentle.
I’d agree that amplification certainly does change the sound, but I am not convinced that it is necessarily worse. Some singers struggle to project their voice in large, modern venues, so the “subdued and gentle” sounds can be very difficult to hear. Furthermore, who’s to say what the “real thing” is in opera? Like all art forms, opera has changed over time, and the characteristics and conditions typical of Monteverdi are not the same as those of Bizet or Strauss. How do we know that Mozart wouldn’t have embraced the microphone had he been given the chance? Opera fans should not be distracted by concerns about the illusory “real thing”; instead, they should jump at this chance to see the latest thing. It’s unlikely to be around forever.