Remember when New York City Opera was at Lincoln Center and had a "sound enhancement" system because Paul Kellogg, then general director, deemed the acoustics of the house to be in need of improvement? Yep. It actually happened. A system was brought over from the Netherlands, and critics had a field day, along with the artists onstage—and not in a good way. While the former questioned what they were hearing, the latter were upset that someone thought they couldn't be heard. Towards the very end of that era, I witnessed Beverly Sills speak during a gala, after having been introduced by Kellogg, where she raked him over the coals for his use of said sound system, he standing not 10 feet away, looking at the floor. The audience went nuts. Of course, we all know what happened to the company after that.
I thought of this matter of amplification after reading a recent article by a colleague, who wrote about the imminent demise of San Diego Opera, the seemingly shrinking world of opera audiences, and his fear that amplification would become commonplace over time, if only because business interests which dictate popular culture would hold the trump card.
Could it happen? Could three hundred years of cultural and performance practice fade and become a shadow of its former self? Is it possible that knowledge of acoustical singing will be dumbed down? Will sopranos be singing Tosca with a body mic? Will it come to that?
Surely not, some say, while others look around at the thinning of cultural values, and say it's only a matter of time.
Knowledge is passed from generation to generation by example and practice, often in the most unlikely places. In the case of acoustical singing, I twice heard popular artists of the highest caliber lay down their mics, step to the front of the stage, and sing their encore a-cappella, if only to say to the audience: "See… I can do it for real!"
The two artists? Tony Bennett and Barbara Cook, both in the 80's, their voices clear and true, ringing out into the auditorium. Now, that's Old School! What will happen when they are gone? Your guess is as good as mine.