The Problematic Case of Sound Amplification at the Royal Swedish Opera

By Sebastien Turgeon

The production of sound in opera has always been acoustic in nature, with the exception of a handful of contemporary operas which have specific instructions from the composer, Natural sounds produced by voices and instruments are untouched and vocal technique accounts for the ability to project in a concert hall. In modern times, new technology has introduced the possibility of amplifying sounds, leading to concerts outdoors and in larger indoor venues.

However, for some time now, there have been suspicions that some opera companies are utilizing discreet amplification systems to support singers with weaker voices. 

This is the case at the Royal Swedish Opera as it could be argued that a “discreet” sound amplification system is sometimes used, even though the dimensions of the theater are small as it seats approximately 1100 people. But just as worrisome is the company’s trend to allow producers and stage directors to intentionally use microphones either to produce a certain desired theatrical effect or to simply accommodate the staging. 

Unnatural Sounds & Imbalance

Last year, while attending the company’s successful run of “Elektra” I was truly astonished to hear a brief and blatant use of amplification for the first time. At about 10 minutes from the end, Aegisthus exits the stage and enters the castle to find that his lover Klytemnestra has been murdered. Over a large orchestra playing forte while off-stage, Aegisthus sings “Helft! Mörder! Helft dem Herren! Mörder! Mörder!” and he goes on until he is killed by the intruder Orest. 

In this production, the sets were built in such a way that the entrance to the castle was a fairly long corridor going towards the back of the stage. After entering the castle, Aegisthus was in an unfavorable position to sing, behind a wall and probably 30-40 meters (100-125 feet) from the front of the stage. There was no time for the singer to come closer to the side of the stage before singing his lines. The apparent solution was to amplify the tenor’s voice and the result was a voice larger than life, anything but operatic. In this crucial moment of the opera, over Strauss’ masterful and heavy orchestration, this voice came out, not from the backstage where Aegisthus went, but from speakers above the stage, loud and unnatural, mainly because of a clear audiovisual dissonance within the experience! It was hard to ignore your disbelief that Aegisthus suddenly had a pair of loud speakers above the stage within the world of the story and justify that theatrical decision. As a result, it simply ruined this important moment in the performance, bringing attention to the amplification and, perhaps unfairly, the conclusion that the singer simply couldn’t manage the vocal challenges bestowed on him.

Earlier this season, the new production of “Rigoletto” by the Swedish theater stage director Sofia Jupither focused the main protagonist’s fear, for example by using a high and stage-wide wall in the second scene of the first act and during the third act. It created a sense of both suffocation and angst.

However, at the end of the second act, this focus on fear came at the expense of the authenticity of the music. According to the score, on his way to jail and right before the duet “Si Vendetta,” Count Monterone crosses the back of the stage between two halberdiers while reflecting on his curse upon the duke. Instead, Monterone is never seen, singing off-stage, voice amplified, as if dead, and his supernatural voice is booming from heaven. Rigoletto looks up as he is listening, impressed, scared and becomes more determined to avenge his daughter as he replies: “No, vecchio, t’inganni…un vindice avrai,” literally translated as “No old man, you’re wrong … you’ll have an avenger.”  

Here, amplification was clearly an artistic choice made by director Jupither, deliberately bending the conventions of opera in order to create an effect that is not genuinely operatic and obviously not originally intended by the composer. As the most important duet “Si Vendetta” follows an amplified moment, it simply loses its musical power. Suddenly Verdi’s incredibly riveting duet, which builds musically from what came before, just sounded weak on an experiential level; you just could not match the power of the amplification. This artistic choice impacted the nature of the musical performance by establishing a musical imbalance, inevitably creating a departure from the natural sound of the human voice, as well as interfering with the dramatic development in Verdi’s writing. 

A Whole Night Of Amplification

But if these two examples were brief moments in their respective performances, in a recent production of “Król Roger” amplification was unapologetically used from the beginning until the end of the opera. The rarely played masterpiece by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski was produced by Mariusz Treliński, who last year won an International Opera Awards as Director of the year. In this co-production with the Polish National Opera, Treliński makes several very debatable artistic choices, including the decision to amplify soloists and chorus for most of their off-stage singing throughout the opera. This was done to support his main dramatic proposition: the story takes place in Roger’s head instead of Sicily in the Middle Ages, and the other characters represent voices in his head. 

Throughout the performance, there were many instances where acoustic sounds would blend with amplified sounds. For example, singers would sing on stage, exit, and the next moment continue singing with a microphone. Much of the music for the chorus during the entire opera and most of the music for soloists in the last act was amplified (except for King Roger, who was on stage). This greatly interfered with the quality of what could have been a worthy musical performance. It was distracting and confusing for the listeners, to say the least, and it did not do justice to the singers. 

Dramatically, if amplification attempted to reinforce the sense of obsession or schizophrenia, it was at the price of the operatic nature of the performance. The continuous use of amplified sounds constantly created musical imbalances, contrasting unnatural and acoustic sounds, voices synthetically boosted and stripped of their natural quality. The result was a musical mess, disorienting and difficult to follow.

Instead of sparking the listener’s interest, stimulating thoughts and feelings, this in-your-face modern reading removed the delicate quality of the music to overindulge the senses with loud artificial sound, a bit like fast-food at the opera. The end result was the musical wrecking of “Król Roger.”

A revival of Franz Lehár “Die lustige Witwe” recently took the stage for a run of 14 performances. In this show, all singers are amplified while singing on stage, throughout the performance. There are some technical issues of unevenness, sound amplification is not a perfect science. One major problem from a musical perspective is that an actor takes on the role of Baron Zeta. He did a fine acting job but he also sang, alone and within the ensemble, his non-classically trained voice seamlessly blending with the other singer’s voices as it benefitted from the amplification.

Other objectionable amplified moments included singers dancing and maintaining their sounds; singers turning their back to the audience and maintaining their volume; singers walking towards the back of the stage and their voices getting louder; uneven vocal volume for a singer when comparing different numbers. Additionally, it is very difficult to appreciate an opera singer’s voice when it is amplified and certainly impossible to evaluate it. Overall, the result is much closer to a musical than an operetta, which is fine, but it cannot be called opera or operetta.

The Royal Swedish Opera currently presents around 110 to 120 performances a year and most of the productions are created in-house. The repertory is varied and includes modern operas and rarities. Productions, sets and staging are a mix of traditional and modern, are often thoughtful and sometimes very provocative. However, this use of sound amplification in several productions clearly goes against the basic acoustic nature of opera, with at least a third of performances partly or completely amplified in the 2018-19 season.

One can wonder if this practice will stop or snowball —  the integrity of this opera company depends on it.


Special Features