Words of, alas, too much truth, from Will Crutchfield
- I thought you mght be interested in the following article. I am sending
with the author's (Will Crutchfield) permission.
Crutchfield is the finest writer on voice in the English language since the
late William Henderson (reigned 1889-1946). He got fed up with the way the
NYTimes was treating him (the Times appears not to believe that vocal music
is actually music) and became a conductor and voice teacher instead. Every
now and then he writes something. It's always worth reading. Often, as here,
he hits the nail precisely on the head.
A MIKE AT THE OPERA
So the New York City Opera will bring in the loudspeakers.
As Anthony Tommasini reported in The Times [Aug. 3], the city's "second"
opera company, long known for its cultivation of young American voices
and for the frustratingly muted acoustics of the State Theater where it
presents them, will begin this season to rely on "sound enhancement" and
those voices through electronic way-stations between the singers' bodies and
the public's ears.
I had thought this would start differently, and at least a little bit
later: Andrea Bocelli, I supposed, would be the Trojan horse. The blind
pop-tenor, whose voice is pretty enough and Italianate enough to connect
operatic style but neither sufficiently powerful nor sufficiently developed
sing "real" opera, has announced the intent to parlay his enormous
into the fantasy of performing staged opera with established co-stars
(beginning with a "Werther" production opposite the velvet-voiced Denyce
Everybody figures that Mr. Bocelli would need amplification; it doesn't
take much additional figuring to realize that his "legit" colleagues could
at a disadvantage if they put their naked voices beside whatever the
sound-staff sends out for the tenor.
And once the line is crossed -- well, a lot of people are waiting for
the telegenic Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli to sing Carmen. And
here is a way whereby, despite the small sound she produces and the dramatic
demands of that score, she could. I thought that might be Step Two.
But it makes sense that the City Opera and its general director, Paul
Kellogg, should have gotten out in front on this issue. Their theater
was built for dancing; the same stage that is supposed to muffle footfalls
tends to muffle voices a bit as well. Anyone can understand why a company
presenting youthful voices in such a space could use a break.
Emphasizing this aspect, however, distracts from the real picture. Yes,
the acoustic is less than ideal - but nobody had trouble hearing Beverly
Sills, Samuel Ramey, Faith Esham or Richard Leech from that stage, and they
were "young American singers" too. [One could also mention Placido Domingo,
Louis Quilico, Olivia Stapp, Elisabeth Grummer, Maureen Forrester, David
Daniels, Gilda Cruz-Romo ... and plenty more. -- JY]
The underlying issue is how we sing and how we listen, and both of those
things have been changing.
The quality of a sound traveling through space to the human ear is one
of the most mysterious of phenomena. Anyone who thinks it is not
altered through electronic intervention is kidding himself. Anyone who
assumes that the disciplines of good singing will be automatically
maintained as the practical need for them recedes is kidding himself.
believes that a careful and subtle introduction of the concept ensures
care and subtlety down the road is kidding himself. The mikes won't change
everything overnight: the process is more incremental, with the vocal
community responding subtly to the changed sound-environment, which will
in turn adjust to the changed singing, bit by bit, perhaps slowly enough
that nobody will be able to pin-point the moment at which the "real thing"
Or perhaps not so slowly: Look at Broadway, where it took less than
thirty years for natural sound to be supplanted across the board by sound
systems for which "crass" and "blatant" are among the nicest possible terms
description. And who now sings there the way, say, Julie Andrews or
Barbara Cook or Robert Rounseville sang? Instead, hoarse tremulous rasping.
Why? Because when singers force emotion through their throats, but have not
learned the technical disciplines of channeling that force into a resonant,
space-traveling sound, then you get hoarseness, tremulousness and rasp.
And that's what some music is based on and written for; other music
shifts for itself as best it may. Can anyone be surprised that during the
decades that sound has been depersonalized - snatched from the throat of
the singer into the omnivorous speaker system - Broadway style in general
has been snatched from the personalities of individual artists to the
omnivorous blockbuster production? Do you know who is currently singing in
or "Les Miz"? Does it matter?
The opera world had better be thinking these thoughts - but the thinking
had better not stop with such gloomy associations, because we have to ride
the horse in the direction it is going. Amplified sound is the sound of
today. The people who remember unmiked political oratory are getting old.
Sunday sermons that rely on a well-produced speaking voice are rare.
The last President with sufficient vocal timbre even to consider speaking au
naturel was Ronald Reagan, and he didn't. If Bill Clinton tried, nobody
would hear him. And we've adjusted, and so will opera.
In fact we have already been adjusting for a long time. Most opera
lovers already listen to records at least as often as they go to the
And records have long been changing - incrementally, indirectly, in ways
that are sometimes contradictory and hard to pin down - the sounds we
way we listen to those sounds, the way singers' careers are made, and they
way they sing.
Importing these changes frankly and directly into the opera house itself
is a big step, because up to now the "reality check" of live performance has
served as a restraining counterbalance to their influence. Mr. Kellogg
has crossed the Rubicon (in the company of a few Europeans; see the current
issue of Opera magazine). He may face a chorus of protest. But I doubt it
will last long and I don't think it is productive to join in. What is
here is for the people who care about good singing and understand its
cultivation to make sure their influence is felt, not as a grudging drag
inevitable, but as a positive (and cautionary) guide to carry as much of
the "old" essence of opera as possible into the new era.
We're going to have to accept that the listeners who notice this and
care about these things will probably be a minority, a kind of "niche
market," and possibly even a shrinking one as habits change and
techniques improve. Think of TV dinners circa 1965 and flash-frozen Lean
today: as pre-cooked meals get better, fewer people continue to insist that
only fresh-cooked will do.
Yet there is still a difference. And niche markets can be nourished,
cultivated and promoted, and the values to which they cater can exercise
a good influence on the mass market as well. Remember that chilling
phrase from the Vietnam era: "we had to destroy the village in order to save
it"? Mechanical sound-processing is destructive of one of the most magical
elements of opera, and facing that is better than pretending otherwise.
But we do want to save it.
[This is all very true and VERY sad. The new generation will hears a CD and
think it's the real thing. It isn't. -- JY]