Cher Public

Time and again I would try to say

Our own publisher and New York Observer scribe Julie Jordan James Jorden plays pundit again for WQXR’s “Conducting Business,” discussing musical comedy in opera houses and dishing about opera singers appearing on Broadway. Photo: Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago

  • lindoro

    I recall in the Lyric’s 2011 “Long Live Passion” ad campaign the company boasted that “our singers don’t need mikes”--so much for that.

  • Krunoslav

    Wasn’t Irene Jordan available?

    • Bill

      Well opera houses do Die Zauberfloete, Fidelio,
      Der Freischuetz, Entfuehrung, Oberon, sometimes
      Carmen with dialogue parts of Ariadne etc. and the speaking is not
      always miked as far as I recall -- in the old days
      Die Fledermaus, Die Lustige Witwe, Czardasfuerstin,
      Zeugeuner Baron, Perichole also with alot of
      spoken dialogue was not miked. Somehow the
      singers (like Patrice Munsel at the old Met) were able to project the dialogue so that
      everyone in the audience could hear them when
      speaking. Some of these operettas have become
      absolute classics in opera houses.
      If Carousel tickets sell well, and in many operettas and some musicals classically trained singers with voices that project are preferable in certain roles to today’s pop singers whose unpleasant voices
      have to be miked just to be heard.

      What one hears on Broadway these days is so heavily
      blasted out and so extensively miked that there seems
      to be no genuine intimate communication between the
      players on the stage and the audience.

      There is absolutely no reason why the Chicago Lyric
      Opera or previously the New York City Opera should
      not put on musicals if there is an audience for them.
      My Fair Lady and West Side Story among others are often presented in all the medium sized and smaller European Opera Houses almost all of which do classical operettas as well.

      • RosinaLeckermaul

        I don’t think contemporary audiences would care for the spoken dialogue being bellowed as it had to be in opera houses before amplification. Microphones allow for more realistic speaking, though I must say the miking didn’t help the dialogue much in the upper regions of the Met during THE MERRY WIDOW.
        It’s an inaccurate generalization to say that all musicals are over-amplified. Last week I went to THE KING AND I, which is only slightly amplified. Ditto THE VISIT. The miking of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is quite tastefully done -- just enough. There are shows that blast the sound at you, but it isn’t always the case.
        The issue with musicals is whether to cast opera singers, who may sound nice but have less understanding of the idiom or Broadway singers who have to be miked. Lyric Opera has cast a group of very good Broadway singers in CAROUSEL. It’s the wiser choice.
        Interesting that you mention Patrice Munsel. I remember seeing her in the Lauren Bacall role in the touring company of APPLAUSE. She was a real trouper.

        • SilvestriWoman

          First, let me say that I love Carousel, despite Julie longing for her abusive husband. Mr. Snow is one of the more under-appreciated songs in the musical canon. The show is full of gorgeous tunes that demand real singers, but there really aren’t that many songs. This was driven home when I saw the Hytner production at Lincoln Center. Aside from McDonald and, bow down, Verrett, there were no real singers in the cast. The actors could carry a tune, but the Billy Bigelow just barely got through the Soliloquy.

          I’ll find out on Sunday but, from what I’ve heard, Pasquale is a terrific Billy, but the Soliloquy is sung in more “modern” style, not as the full aria that it really is. (Overall, the production is reportedly fantastic.) I’m keeping my expectations low. In a perfect world, every aspiring Billy would study this clip, but that’s probably too much to ask. Still, they can learn a lot from a 56-year-old English baritone who, in my opinion, is definitive.

        • StageLefty

          Musicals produced today are never “slightly amplified”. It’s just that the available technology and the talents of the designer and mixer make it seem that way, which is how it’s intended. But it takes a LOT of equipment, rehearsal and professional expertise to get there -- (Rosina, you specifically cited 3 B’way shows, for which the audio design and technology investment is enormous) and is rarely the path affordable to non-profit theatre and opera.
          The shifting back and forth between amplified dialogue and un-amplified singing in musicals is the problem. I worked on/attended many musicals and operettas treated in that fashion and it never worked. Not. Once. I should note thea three of my favorite productions of musicals were done by opera companies -- two (Kismet, Fair Lady) had no enhancement at all in a small house, one in a larger house (Little Night Music) was mic’d throughout. But the ones that tried to do the halfsies were horrible.
          In the operas with smatterings of dialogue (Flute, Carmen, etc) they can nearly shout in the language of the text with supertitles, and the audience will be (largely) fine. But for modern US audiences if the piece is in English, we need to hear the dialogue delivered more realistically than can be done with projection required for the Met or the Civic Center Theatre of ______. (Operas were written for theatres closer in size to Broadway houses than to the mega-sized auditoriums in most cities -- we’re already stretching demands for vocal size!) But, you get a good technician, the best in microphones and transmitters, and it’s possible to make the dialogue exist in a conversational level, and the larger voices to sing without distorting, and have it all part of the same listening experience. Not all Broadway stars have the same size voice -- it’s ALL balanced (and does require careful enhancing of the orchestra as well -- mon dieu!) Sophisticated amplification aka “just enough” is simply part of making good musical theatre now -- whether by an A-list opera company or the Podunk Little Theatre -- and in Podunk they at least acknowledge that it’s part and parcel with the literature.
          I LOVE that opera and theatre remain as bastions of the “un-plugged”. With a musical, though, it takes a delicate mix of the perfect piece, the perfect venue and the perfect vocal (and acting) talent to make it all work without any help. When you start doing a “little”, it won’t be right until it’s done thoroughly.

          • RosinaLeckermaul

            Yes, good sound design is difficult and, yes, in my experience opera houses don’t do it very well. The amplification at MERRY WIDOW at the Met was atrocious. If you’re going to amplify, you have to amplify everything, not just the dialogue. Otherwise you are creating two clashing sound worlds.
            Part of the problem with musicals in opera houses the size of the Lyric is that these houses are too big for opera, much less musicals. How can a good singing actor make an impression when half the audience is miles away?
            Singing style in musicals has changed, partly because of amplification and partly because of changes in the singing style for popular music. When CAROUSEL opened at the St. James Theatre, a big two-balcony house, there were no body microphones (musicals used microphones in the footlights since 1940 — there are stories of Lorenz Hart claiming that they would be the death of the musical), but the amplification was rudimentary. Singers were either belters or had operatic training. John Raitt, the original Billy, often sang operatic arias when he appeared on television in the 1950s Stephen Pasquale, the LOC Billy, is a very good singer with a beautiful voice, but his style of singing is not the same as Raitt’s. Unlike Michael Hayden, the Billy in the Nicholas Hytner revival, he is a powerful singer (Hayden was a disaster)., but he won’t be an operatic Billy. The gender politics of “Soliloquy” are nauseating, but I’m sure Pasquale, with Rob Ashford, will think through their importance to his character. It won’t be — and shouldn’t be — conventionally pretty. And, yes, he and the other excellent Broadway performers in the cast, depend on microphones. I understand from reading the reviews that the LOC amplification is spotty. I hope they fix it before I see the production on the 28th.

            • RosinaLeckermaul

              Oops, I made a mistake. CAROUSEL was across the street from the St. James at the Majestic, an equally large house with one balcony. OKLAHOMA was at the St. James.

            • SilvestriWoman

              Regina, I saw it yesterday, and it was incredible. (For the record, I did see Hytner’s production at Lincoln Center.) We were sitting in a center box (thanks to an April Fool’s Day $39 special!) and the sound was fine. The transitions from speech to song were seamless. No surprise, only Graves initially came off as a little tinny, once she burst into song, but settled down to a lovely, intimate You’ll Never Walk Alone.

              In fact, that was the mood of the entire show. The production design is beautiful, never overwhelming the performers while allowing the chorus and dancers to fill out the stage. Charlotte d’Amboise is spectacular as Mrs. Mullin.

              The cast was fine across the board. Giambatese didn’t pull my heart on Mr. Snow, but she provided much-needed comic relief. Matthew Hydzik, as Enoch Snow, is so fine that I thought he was a “slumming” opera singer. No, he’s a musical theater artist, yet his light lyric tenor was sweeter than anything I’d heard during Lyric’s main season.

              The show, though, belonged to Osnes and, especially, Pasquale. The former almost looked like a small-town Cinderella -- very petite with a sweet (but never saccharine) soubrette. At the same time, thanks to glorious vocal phrasing and dramatic simplicity, you were always aware of Julie’s spine of steel. She never simpered or showed self-pity, seemingly aware of her choices. Pasquale may not be the beefy Billy (Hayden excepted) but he makes the role his own. Ashford makes the most of Pasquale’s innate physical grace, especially with Billy’s suicide. Vocally, he may not be an operatic baritone, but YouTube clips don’t begin to do him justice. His voice has a richness that I’d never heard before, and his technique is rock-solid. I was expecting more of that neo-pop/rock Broadway sound so prevalent today, but I didn’t hear it. He has fantastic breath control, allowing him to sing wonderfully long phrases. During the Soliloquy, he doesn’t hit the usual marks, instead opting for personal nuance -- I’ve never heard it sung quite like he does -- but still rides the climaxes with ease. There was not one pushed note.

              In short, my friends and I loved it. Despite a full house, you could hear a pin drop through most of the show. Towards the end, there was hardly a dry eye in the house, and each tear was honestly evoked. I nearly bit my lip off, trying not to audibly sob. I’m not surprised that there’s already talk of taking this production to Broadway. I hope you enjoy it even half as much as we did!

            • SilvestriWoman

              Oops! Meant Rosina…

    • Donna Anna

      Pianist Julie Jordan is married to Nathan Gunn.

  • DeepSouthSenior

    After a few days absent from Parterre, I’m glad that I visited this discussion first. The comments have been as informative as the interview. I love both opera and Broadway musicals and have been fascinated by the intersection of the two all my life. Another topic of discussion might be concert performances of complete Broadway shows with full symphony orchestra. Sweeney Todd with NY Phil., Bryn Terfel, and Emma Thompson comes to mind. No real staging, minimal props, but highly successful, IMO.

    And thank you, James, for putting a big smile on my face. Speaking of Renee Fleming’s appearance in the Broadway play “Living on Love,” Naomi Lewin asks, “James, do you think your readers are interested in seeing her taking on a non-singing role like this?” James replies, “Wehlll [slight rising inflection], you know, I try to discourage schadenfreude among my readers.” Seldom has a sentence been more pregnant with meaning, and subject to more interpretation.

    My other most memorable music-related moment this week was hearing the Emerson Quartet play Berg’s “Lyric Suite” at Tulane University in New Orleans. I can’t say which gave me more pleasure (for different reasons, of course) -- James’s sentence or the masterful performance of of a 20th-century masterpiece.