THE BLOG
08/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If This is Monday and Opera in Central Park, Why the Microphones?

Call me Johnny-come-lately. Ask me where I've been spending my time up until now. So, okay, I may be arriving tardy to the debate--if, that is, there's been a debate, which I assume there has been and for some years.
What I'm talking about is the tradition the Metropolitan Opera honors every summer: presenting opera in parks throughout New York City's five boroughs. This year--not for the first time but for the first time in a few decades--I attended the first (July 13) of the Summer Recital Series on the Central Park Summer Stage.
So what's my beef at such a supposed boon in free entertainment from the Met with City Park Foundation, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation? In brief, it's that although what I heard were for the most part opera arias, I didn't hear opera.
By that I mean that within the relatively small confines of the concert arena, the singers--baritone Paolo Szot on his night off as Emile de Becque in South Pacific, soprano Lisette Oroposa, tenor Alek Shrader--were miked. I'd forgotten this is often, if not always, park policy.
But hold the (cell)phone. Isn't the point of opera that it isn't miked, that the performers work without amplification? Which in this case was so bad as to be execrable. All three singers sounded as if auditioning a fugue for tin horns. When Szot and Shrader sustained notes, the effect was that of a loose fender blowing in the on-coming air. When Oroposa sang, the result was often factory-whistle shrill.
My question, then, is: Whom are the presenters doing a favor by offering these recitals? Opera lovers will know they aren't hearing singing done under the proper conditions. Those who don't know opera will think this is what opera is and be sadly misguided. Even if the evening is free, how beneficial is it in promoting an understanding of opera?
Before the concert began, one of the prefatory speakers mentioned that new and improved speakers are due at a $250,000 cost. Nevertheless, that still says amplification will be the norm in a Central Park open-air arena much smaller than the Met auditorium--a space that should readily accommodate the unamplified human voice, particularly when the quite competent accompanist is Vlad Iftinca, alone at a Yamaha. And, by the way, if improved speakers are on the way, why not wait for them before subjecting an audience to such an inadequate representation of a great art form?
Now that I've come this far, I'll admit that mine is undoubtedly a minority response. If the standing ovation at the end is any indication (not that standing ovations necessarily are), the crowd around me loved what it heard.
I'll even admit there were enjoyable elements. Perhaps I got the most from Oroposa, who not only sings with admirable control but is a natural actress. Her "Quando m'en vo" from La Boheme was as coquettish and self-satisfied as composer Giacomo Puccini and librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa would have wished. You see, Oroposa doesn't merely come out and let fly, She enters as the character she's playing and, with the above-mentioned Musetta's waltz, even exited that way.
Szot and Shrader were only slightly less adept in the acting department, although--as often happens on opera stages--they indulged in too many cliché gestures or, by contrast, simply stuck to the just-stand-there-and-sing approach. When, however, Szot eased into "Some Enchanted Evening," he exhibited the mastery of that Oscar Hammerstein-Richard Rodgers classic he's reached after a year and a half in the de Becque role. The casual hands-in-pockets delivery was virile as all get-out.
It was possible, of course, for opera knowledgeables to determine how all three singers would be likely to sound in ideal surroundings. Each of them chose arias with which they're familiar. Having played the Don Giovanni title role many times, Szot has "Fin ch'han dal vino" and "Deh, vieni alla finestra" down. Singing eventually in German, Italian, French and English, Oroposa rarely faltered. Shrader punched the high Cs in "Ah, mes amis" from La Fille du Regiment, although they mightn't have needed quite the wallop he gave them. But the guy's young and cocky, which can be both good and bad in a singer on the rise.
And just another word about microphones. For the most part, the singers wore head mikes, which from a distance made them look as if they had large moles on their left cheeks. At the very end, though, Szot emerged without jacket and tie and with a hand-held mike. He then swiveled through "Besame Mucho" as if to show Tom Jones how it's done.
Finally, a mike put to good use.