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Technique Meets Technology: The Modern Opera Singer
Kelley Rourke
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Editor's Note: –excerpted from Tod Machover’s Keynote Speech at OPERA America’s 30th Annual Conference in Houston, TX, Monday, May 8, 2000.
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“Opera diva becomes Esther Williams performing in Cirque de Soleil!” That’s how mezzosoprano Mary Phillips describes her Rhinemaiden experience in Seattle Opera’s recent Ring Cycle. As opera companies make greater use of technology in live productions, singers often find themselves learning techniques they never imagined during basic training—in Phillips’s case, diving and flipping high above the stage floor.

Technology has been a hot topic among opera lovers lately. When New York City Opera announced a new sound enhancement system last season, the public response ranged from optimistic to ornery. And Los Angeles Opera’s 2003 Ring Cycle, designed by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic (best known for Star Wars, Jurassic Park and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) is bound to inspire lively discussion. At OPERA America’s 30th Annual Conference, professionals from across the field gathered to discuss howtechnology is changing the demands on the singer. The discussion was less a philosophical debate than an attempt to ascertain how we can best prepare singers for the future—whatever that future may bring. The panel included Christopher Hahn, then artistic administrator at Los Angeles Opera, now artistic director at Pittsburgh Opera; Kathleen Kaun, professor of voice at Rice University, John J. Miller, artist manager; Phyllis Pancella, mezzo soprano; and Joel Silberman, director/ record producer. The panel was moderated by Gayletha Nichols, then director of Houston Grand Opera Studio, now director of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

Pancella’s advice to young singers was simple: “Find your best technique for your voice, and carry that with you wherever you go,” she said. “I have had to learn how to not be too precious about the sound that comes out of my head. I’m part of an opera, for crying out loud. It’s not the Phyllis show—not that I wouldn’t like it to be. I’ve had to learn to trust people who are out there listening. I have always had to rely on the conductor to tell me what the balance is. I have to rely on the conductor, the people who run the company, and now, potentially, the sound engineers to represent me and the piece as well as possible.”

Amplification may be receiving the lion’s share of attention these days, but technology has played a part in opera throughout its history—from the development of mechanized scenic panels in the 17th century to the introduction of projected translations in the late 20th century. Advanced effects can be used to create realistic illusions in service of a story, as when lighting and flight technology transformed Seattle’s stage into the depths of the Rhine. And some recent works, like Tod Machover’s Brain Opera and Louis Andriessen’s Writing to Vermeer, use a collage of media effects to create an entirely new theatrical experience.

How do singers learn to accommodate technology (and vice versa)? Seattle Opera made sure each of its Rhinemaidens was wellprepared for her airborne star turn. As soprano Lisa Saffer, who sang Woglinde, pointed out, dangling in midair could present certain problems. “As a functioning classical singer, you need a way to support yourself.” The harnesses for this production, developed in consultation with a local voice teacher, were constructed with stirrups ending in fiberglass soles, giving the singers something to push against. Phillips and Laura Tucker (who sang the roles of Wellgunde and Flosshilde, respectively) spent a week in the harnesses, a year before rehearsals began. Stephen Wadsworth (the production’s director) attended their working sessions to learn what would and would not be possible. For instance, they discovered that it was easy to do somersaults and back flips, but difficult to hold a dive.

In the end, the stagehands, not the singers, were responsible for executing most of the choreography. “There were two guys for each one of us: One does the vertical bar, the other does the horizontal and pivoting. All we had to do was not be afraid, and not do things that would make us spin out of control,” said Saffer. They also had to maintain an awareness of their colleagues’ flight patterns. “Even if the other person was 10 or 12 feet below us, we were passing their wires. You had to think in several dimensions at once,” she says.

By the time rehearsals began, “We were pretty much puppets,” said Phillips. “It’s freeing, in a way. If I could do all my roles flying now, it would be fine with me.” The success of the stunts had much to do with advance work with Seattle’s technical team. “Usually when you’re working on a piece, you develop friendships with other performers, or the director, but our closest interactions were with the fly guys,” said Saffer. “They really made us feel secure.” (The crew included Charles T. Buck, Eric Stenehjem, John Morgan, Scott Allison, Justin Loyd, and Jeff Mosher.)

Did the singers worry about their vocal artistry being overshadowed by their aerial acrobatics? “Anything that serves the piece as a whole is important,” said Phillips. “I think this is what Wagner would have wanted. We have this amazing technology; why not use it? People still heard the music, sung beautifully, sung as an ensemble—with moves that made it even better. In this case, it worked well. Of course, a flying Despina might be something else.”

Technology can be used to create a “natural” illusion, or it can be employed in a more obvious way. Tod Machover, whose works include VALIS, Brain Opera, and Resurrection, uses computer generated sounds in combination with voices and traditional instruments. Singer Karol Bennett, who has worked with Machover on a number of projects, enjoys combining her own artistry with technology. “The voice adds a human quality,” she says. “To have the human voice amidst the technology is a positive and powerful statement.... The human being can lead technology instead of being led by technology.”

The technology used in Machover’s Brain Opera combines prerecorded sounds (including Bennett’s own voice) with sounds derived from interactive “hyperinstruments.” Bennett has worked with Machover on numerous projects over the years and has found that experiments with new technology add depth to her more traditional performances. “Singers need mental flexibility,” she says. “The more you can expose yourself to new music, the more flexible you can be in any performance.”

Opera is a multimedia art form by definition, and some of today’s creators continue to push its boundaries. In Writing to Vermeer, singers shared the stage with video images, dancers, several tons of flowing water, and a cow. Soprano Susan Narucki, who sang the role of Vermeer’s wife both at the Amsterdam premiere and at the Lincoln Center Festival revival, finds that such groundbreaking productions require an equal measure of flexibility and firmness. For instance, some of the staging, combined with the ambient noise from the technology, made subtle amplification necessary, but Narucki did not adjust her technique as a result. “I just did my thing,” she said. “I tell them from the get go that I can’t change the way my instrument sounds. The stronger you are about what you do, the easier it is for the sound engineer to get a picture of what you sound like.”

As for some of the other production elements, Narucki initially had some concerns about the torrential downpours from the flys: Would wet costumes, combined with Amsterdam’s frigid climate, lead to a debilitating cold? She recommends that singers in challenging situations “Put preconceived notions aside.... Try it once.” However, she went on to note that it’s important to look after your own h
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