Recording opera

Article by Paul Myers

I don’t remember which wag observed that being a tenor isn’t a profession, it’s a disease, but he may have had a point. It’s a spellbinding sound when these vocal buccaneers troll their way through the high C’s and not all tenors demand centre stage, but if there happens to be an empty spotlight, they do have a natural tendency to beam in on it like guided missiles approaching the target area.

We were recording a little-known opera that included a tenor duet and, as luck would have it, only one of the ‘stage’ microphones was available to the pair of them. During a session, the record producer is seated in the Control Room, but an assistant, in contract via headphones, is on stage with the singers, ready to move them from one position to another, to create an illusion of stage ‘action’. Knowing what might happen, I suggested that he gently hold the backs of the tenors’ jackets, to keep them equi-distant from the microphone, perhaps giving a little tug if they moved too far forward.

Moments later, an extraordinary vision emerged on the television monitor. The hapless assistant, his body at an angle of forty-five degrees and his heels dug into the stage, was clutching desperately to the coat-tails of both singers, looking for all the world like a water-skier fighting heavy seas. The two tenors seemingly unaware of him, strained towards the microphone, neck veins bulging, singing lustily and never missing a beat!

But one shouldn’t single out tenors. A few years ago, some Mozart sessions were taking place in a Parisian church with steep stairs leading to the makeshift Control Room. The engineer mindful of his recent hernia operation, decided to use a pair of lightweight loudspeakers for the playbacks. Unfortunately, the speakers lacked the full bass lustre of their heavier counterparts, which caused more than a little concern for the leading baritone. At the first playback, his expression darkened and he stated ominously: ‘That is not my voice!’ We assured him that it was only a slight deficiency in the speakers, but he was unconvinced, and returned to the studio looking like Scarpia at the close of the first Act of Tosca.

Matters deteriorated. The conductor, sensing trouble, used the rest of the period for recording, proposing that any playbacks should be reserved for the end of the session. We finished on time, the orchestra went home, and conductor and cast assembled for the playback. At that point, the baritone stormed into the Control Room, his expression similar to Boris embarking on his mad scene. Within moments, he announced: “No! That is not my voice!”, threw his overcoat round his shoulders and headed for the exit.

This particular baritone is a man well over six feet, and I would describe myself as ‘well under’. That afternoon, Parisians were treated to the unusual sight of a large angry man striding along the street while a small, concerned figure chased after him, dancing from side to side, apparently trying to pull his overcoat off.

The effort bore fruit. There was a day’s break between the sessions and the singer finally agreed to fly to London, where he would listen to the tapes in a professional studio with the very latest in sound equipment. The next day, looking a little calmer but still unconvinced, the baritone seated himself behind an enormous recording console facing a battery of speakers. Heart beating a little faster, I nodded to the engineer, who pressed the ‘start’ button. Music filled the room, the voice glowed, and everyone present held their breath. When the aria finished, the baritone remained silent. Then he slowly nodded. “That is my voice,” he declared, and promptly burst into tears.

Modern technology lets producers solve problems with all sorts of new electronic gadgetry. Most record collectors know the story of the young singer who, many years ago, stood next to an ailing soprano and sang a high C for her at the appropriate moment. With so many people present at a recording session, it would have been hard to keep such a ‘shocking’ trip secret. Now, a digital machine can simply ‘bend’ a soprano’s high notes up to perfect intonation. Thanks to multiple-tracking (tape machines which offer any number of separate traces), record producers often need, either because of ill-health of a particular singer or – more often – double-booked engagements, to record scenes on separate occasions. In fact, some of the characters never actually meet! And, in an age when superstar singers command fortunes almost as big as Hollywood actors or international footballers, each working day of the week represents an enviable potential wage-packet. Singers have become very adept in these techniques, and I can remember at least one famous duet during which the singers were recorded on different occasions and in different studios, several weeks apart. It is a tribute both to their artistry and the technical skills of the engineer that you would never realise it had happened.

All of which suggests that recording has developed into a somewhat unmusical occupation. After all, music-making is a spontaneous art, guided by the emotions of the moment, and no musician or composer would ever expect any single performance to be perfect. In fact, it is often the human frailties that have made it so touching. But not on records. Today, every note must be correct, every intonation perfect. There can be no extraneous noises, no pages should be heard to turn, no instruments click, and the whole presentation must be edited to a pristine, clinical accuracy that sometimes make you wonder whether human beings have actually been involved. Otherwise some eagle-eared listener will pounce triumphantly. And, on repetition, there will be no surprises, Carmen will forever seduce Don José with that sexy rattle in her throat Violetta will always have the same catch in her voice in a particular phrase, and Calaf will, robot-like, achieve that breath-taking high note at the end of Nessum dorma.

But there are compensations. Thanks to recording, we can still hear the great singers of the past from Caruso to Pavarotti. We can appreciate that particular magic in a less-than-perfect Callas, the amazing flexibility of Sutherland, the heroic mastery of Domingo. How wonderful it would have been if Thomas Edison had only been born earlier, so that we might have heard Liszt and Chopin play the piano, or Paganini the violin. At least, future generations will have the opportunity to hear and judge the great artists of today with or without accompanying technology.

And superstars are not always quite so elusive. Some years ago, I was the producer of a re-creation of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, with an all-star cast that included Dame Kiri Te Kanawa as Eliza, Jeremy Irons as Professor Higgins, Sir John Gielgud as Colonel Pickering, and the irrepressible Warren Mitchell as Doolittle. This may seem the dream casting, but when you are dealing with an opera star together with screen, stage and television stars, the scheduling of recording sessions becomes a night mare. For months, we looked for suitable dates when Kiri was not either in Vienna, La Scala or the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Both Irons and Gielgud were on standby for new films, and Warren Mitchel had to be caught between tours of Australia. (Perhaps I should add that the tenor Jerry Hadley, who sang On the Street Where You Live, and the London Symphony Orchestra under John Mauceri were meeting equally demanding schedules.)

Finally we found a series of dates when everyone might be brought together with the exception of one song: The Rain in Spain. Irons and Gielgud were still in London, so that their scenes together could be recorded, but Te Kanawa was required for performances of Der Rosenkavalier at the Met. We therefore recorded all the Higgins/Pickering duets, including their contributions to The Rain in Spain, with the necessary gaps in the tape for Kiri to overdub her part later.

She returned to New York within a few weeks. By good fortune, the shooting of Jeremy Irons’ film had been delayed, and he proposed that, since he was still in London, he would come to the session and record with Kiri in person. When he heard about this, Sir John immediately telephoned to ask whether he might come back too, because it would be much more fun to do the whole scene ’live’. (He also confessed that he had originally been approached by Lerner and Loewe to play Professor Higgins before Rex Harrison, who created the role in New York and London, but had turned the part down!)

On the appointed day, all three artists returned to the studio to record the song, even though Sir John’s contribution consisted of The rain Spain falls mainly in the plain (twice in unison with Irons) and a delighted ‘Ha-ha!’ during the ‘victory dance’ celebration that ends the sequence. The finished recording was a single, uninterrupted ‘take’ of the three of them and, for me, it has a spontaneity that repeated takes and edits would be unlikely to match.

There have been many other rewarding moments, including the opportunity to record Sir Geraint Evans as Dulcamara, the delightful charlatan pedlar of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, a role he had made his own for many years. The production was recorded was currently playing at Covent Garden, which meant that the chorus, instead of being freelance singers hired for studio sessions, were accustomed to appearing on stage as part of the action, and could react suitably to the marvellous exploits and mysterious powers of Dulcamara’s magic elixir.

When listening to studio-recorded operas, I am sometimes conscious of a ‘dead’ atmosphere surrounding the soloists, especially if the chorus only makes its presence felt when called upon to sing. In this performance at least, the simple village people would greet Dulcamara’s wild exaggerations with suitable ‘ooh’s’ and ‘ah’s’.

Perhaps we were a little carried away. Dulcamara’s famous aria went like a dream, but one critic, while admiring Evans’ performance, complained that it was unfortunately marred by the ‘Hertz rent-a-crowd’ interruptions!

On the other hand, the gods sometimes smile upon us when we least expect it.

We made Amboise Thomas’ romantic opera Mignon in All-Saints’ Church in Tooting, an excellent recording location rather dangerously close to the busy high street, with its accompanying traffic sounds, but protected and partially sound–proofed by leafy plane trees. The stellar cast, headed by Marilyn Horne, Frederica von Stade and the fine French tenor Alain Vanzo, was conducted by Antonio de Almeida.

Everything went very smoothly. It was a peaceful summer, the traffic behaved itself (we mostly worked in the evenings, after the rush hour), and there were very few ambulances or police sirens to interrupt our work.

The final Act of the opera takes place in Italy: a gallery of the Cipriani Palace, overlooking a lake. It is one of those complicated operatic plots in which the heroine who, as a child, had been kidnapped by gypsies, is reunited her father (apparently driven mad by despair) and her lover. The happy ending, in a sylvan setting, makes a delightful change from all those drams littered with bodies in the closing moments.

Months after the recording was released, I received a charming fan letter. The author had admired Mignon for many years, and was delighted find a new recording. In addition to the excellent vocal performance, however, he had particularly admired our subtle use of effect, particularly the distant sound of bird calls by the lake in the last Act.

And the engineers and editors had spent hours trying to remove those damned offstage birds from the master!

Paul Myers had worked with classic music as a record producer, author and broadcaster for many years. His most recent publication is a biography of Leonard Bernstein.