That was the message on the t-shirt of an audience member last Saturday night at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, NY. My wife, Ann, and I had just seen Metropolitan Opera bass-baritone Eric Owens as the tremendously moving lead in the Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson musical Lost in the Stars. The show is based on Alan Paton’s novel Cry, The Beloved Country which takes place in South Africa during Apartheid. Earlier that afternoon, we saw Met Opera stars Dwayne Croft as Professor Harold Hill and Elizabeth Futral as Marian the Librarian in a captivating production of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. This is the second summer that we have seen musicals in this wonderful hall. (Glimmerglass is also presenting Verdi’s Aida and Lully’s Armide this summer). We really enjoy the fact that the singers do not have microphones attached to themselves, as is so popular nowadays in theaters. We think that hearing the real voices without amplification is the best way to hear live musical theater.
But we realize that not all theaters have great acoustics and not all actors have strong musical voices that can be heard over an orchestra. In addition, audience members in certain sections of the house or with hearing problems must appreciate the electronic help. The man in the t-shirt told us that a discussion earlier in the day of the original 1957 Broadway production of Music Man with Robert Preston revealed that there were microphones on or above the stage.
Earlier in the week, we saw a new musical version of the 2002 movie Far From Heaven at the Williamstown Theater Festival. It was in workshop form before its premiere on Broadway and featured the very talented Kelli O’Hara, who starred recently in South Pacific and is currently in Nice Work if You Can Get It, from which she was taking a brief break. After the performance, the cast, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie were available for a Q & A with the audience. Ann asked why microphones on everyone’s face were necessary, since the actors were highly trained singers and the orchestra had only 12 musicians. One of the actors said that she did not like the use of mikes that has become commonplace in theater. The composer mentioned that they were trying to tone down the orchestra to get a better balance between voices and instruments. But the lyricist said that his songs (which we thought were very well-written) were too complicated to be understood without the use of electronics. We didn’t argue with him, although we disagreed.
Maybe live theater has become like movies, television or radio, with a soundman in control. We always enjoy hearing opera on WFCR, as well as seeing the Live Met Opera HD shows in our local movie theater or on television, and microphones are used in all those instances. And neither of us could do our jobs without them. Ann is a jazz singer, and of course I’m on the radio. But we still love to see and hear opera with unamplified voices at Boston University or the Met itself when we can afford it, and we’re happy that Glimmerglass Opera is keeping the acoustic musical tradition alive.