Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Voice in the Ear Proclaims Change (Prompting Opera Singers)

December 14, 2008
A Voice in the Ear Proclaims Change

WHAT do the New York Jets quarterback Brett Favre and the Tristan-singing tenor Peter Seiffert have in common?

They both rely on electronic signals to get cues from coaches on the sidelines.

There is no mystery about the speaker in Mr. Favre’s helmet. Over the last 15 years or so it has become standard in the National Football League for quarterbacks to be equipped with devices through which instructions can be relayed before each offensive play. This practice is universally regarded as a major improvement over the days when quarterbacks had to interpret the distant hand signals of gesticulating coaches or take messages from other players shuttling in and out of the game, and now the device has been extended to defensive play callers as well.

But remote electronic cues in opera?

For the Metropolitan Opera’s first performance this season of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” conducted by Daniel Barenboim on Nov. 28, Mr. Seiffert, 54, a German singer acclaimed for his portrayals of several leading Wagner roles, had an electronic device in one ear that allowed him to hear cues from his own prompter. He used the device only for Acts II and III of the work, which runs five hours with two intermissions.

This was the first time in Met history that a singer had used an earpiece for assistance rather than relying on the house prompter in the box at the front of the stage. And the news rippled through the opera world, stirring debate and casting doubt on Mr. Seiffert’s readiness to sing Tristan, one of the most daunting tenor roles in the repertory.

The controversy raises a larger issue. It has long been standard practice for an operatic artist who has prepared a role thoroughly to take cues from a house prompter. But does a singer cross a line by putting an electronic gizmo in his ear?

Julien Salemkour, a veteran coach and conductor and the prompter who assisted Mr. Seiffert during the rehearsals and performance of “Tristan und Isolde” at the Met, strongly defends the electronic earpiece, made by Sennheiser. Speaking on behalf of Mr. Seiffert, who was fighting a cold and under doctor’s orders not to talk, Mr. Salemkour said during a telephone interview that using earpieces is “not new at all.”

“Just watch the U.N. General Assembly,” he said. True, delegates to the United Nations have long used earpieces to hear translations of one another’s comments. But none of them are trying to sing Tristan.

Mr. Salemkour, a musical assistant to Mr. Barenboim at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, came up with the idea to use earpieces for prompting two years ago, during a production there of “Tristan und Isolde.” It was Mr. Seiffert’s first Tristan, and he was struggling to learn the role. Its difficulties, combined with the challenges of the staging, made him insecure. The high-concept modern production raised the level of the stage floor two feet and covered the prompter’s box. To compensate, up to three coaches at a time, including Mr. Salemkour, stood in the wings practically shouting cues to the singers.

Mr. Salemkour thought that an electronic aid would be more efficient and less distracting to Mr. Seiffert, allowing him to relax and empowering him to give his best performance, which is the whole point of prompting. Mr. Barenboim, who conducted the Berlin production, gave his blessing.

A plugged-in Tristan has one disadvantage, Mr. Salemkour conceded. “The singer has one ear half blocked,” he said, and while that does not prevent the performer from hearing the orchestra and other singers, “it is uncomfortable physically.” Otherwise, Mr. Salemkour added, the device works extremely well.

So what’s the harm?

It depends on the results. Many opera roles are long, complex and difficult. For a singer in the midst of an impassioned scene, with the orchestra blaring and the chorus soaring, remembering the words or finding the first notes of a vocal line can be extremely hard. And given the expansiveness of a stage like the Met’s, a singer at any moment can be positioned too far from the orchestra pit for the conductor to be any help. The Met’s current production of “Tristan und Isolde,” by the director Dieter Dorn, uses a deep and spacious unit set.

At the Met the musicians who perform the prompting are officially titled assistant conductors, and when things go well, that is exactly the function they fulfill. The prompter’s box is aptly named. To enter the one at the Met, you must climb a steep metal ladder and squeeze into a narrow chair with a hydraulic lift. Small video monitors on either side allow the prompter to see the conductor, and speakers pipe in the performance from the pit. The box hides the prompter from audience members, who seldom hear the cues.

Many companies, especially those with smaller houses, dispense with prompters entirely: the New York City Opera, for one. (Remember the good old City Opera, nearly dormant and badly struggling right now?) There is no prompter’s box at the David H. Koch Theater. So when singers in a City Opera production get in trouble or draw a blank on a line, they resort to the time-tested solution of actors in the theater: just wing it and move on. Some opera buffs would argue that it is worth trading off occasional flubs from singers for the enhanced spontaneity that comes from performing without a prompter. But it is hard to imagine a performance of an opera like “Tristan” that would not require prompting.

Just as some opera houses use prompting and others don’t, some sports allow coaching during competition while others, curiously, forbid it. Tennis, for example. For whatever reason, tennis players are not allowed to communicate with coaches during matches, though many have worked out cagey systems of secret cues. As a fan of the sport, I’ve never understood why it is considered almost cheating for a player to get input from a coach during the throes of a match.

No opera buff objects to the use of prompters per se, as long as it does not become an enabling device for unprepared singers. On the first night of the Met’s run of “Tristan und Isolde,” which was also Mr. Barenboim’s long-awaited company debut, Mr. Seiffert, despite using his earpiece for the final two acts, seemed to be glancing rather often at the prompter’s box.

The complicated logistics that night explained this, in part. During Act I Mr. Seiffert relied only on the house prompter, Carrie-Ann Matheson. During Act II, with his earpiece in place, he received cues from Mr. Salemkour, who stood in the wings wearing a headset so he could hear the orchestra clearly. For Act III, dominated by Tristan, Mr. Salemkour occupied the box, with Ms. Matheson off to the side.

Mr. Salemkour said that Mr. Seiffert was understandably nervous about singing this touchstone role at the Met. In addition Mr. Seiffert, who sounded congested in his lower register that night, was already battling a cold. He pulled out of the following two performances of “Tristan.” (Gary Lehman took over. At press time it was not known which tenor would sing in the fourth performance, on Friday.)

Vocally and dramatically Mr. Seiffert was at his best that night when it counted the most, during the notoriously difficult and endless scene in which the wounded, delirious Tristan works himself into frenzied states, erupting with anguish and longing for his beloved Isolde, then turning half-crazed as he thinks he sees the ship bringing Isolde to the shore of his castle in Brittany. Perhaps having an earpiece during this scene accounted for the confidence he projected, even when his voice faltered.

Still, many longtime opera lovers will see the introduction of earpieces as at best distracting and at worst cheating.

Compare, for a moment, prompting in opera with the protocols of a voice recital. A pianist accompanying a singer typically performs from printed music, often with a page turner seated nearby. But because a singer in recital is presenting a musical-dramatic performance, a recitation of poetry set to music, the ideal is for the singer to perform from memory. Though singing without a score is not always possible or even wise, especially in challenging contemporary music, it remains the goal.

But suppose a singer in recital had an earpiece through which an offstage prompter could provide needed cues. The idea might seem dreadful in concept. But if the device liberated that singer to give a strong performance, well, why not?

I am not ready to condemn the use of earpieces right off, especially since there appears to be scant interest among other singers, so far, in following Mr. Seiffert’s lead. A singer wearing an earpiece bothers me less than a sound-enhancement system, like the one the City Opera has been using since 1999. This leap has introduced amplification into an art form that for centuries cherished natural sound.

But in coming up with increasingly sophisticated technological methods to assist singers in opera, coaches and conductors should be careful not to complicate things. The basic issue with this performance of “Tristan und Isolde” was pretty elementary: Mr. Seiffert, it seemed, did not know the role well enough to sing it. Neither an old-fashioned prompter nor a newfangled earpiece can compensate for that.

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