In cartoons, opera singers are always portrayed as standing at the edge of the stage and singing out to the audience. That’s a characterization of an old fashioned practiced called “park and bark." In the past, there was very good reason for a singer planting themselves as close to the orchestra pit as possible and keeping his or her eyes on the conductor at all times. Singers are the most prominently featured instruments, as it were, in an opera. It is imperative that they hear the pitch and stay in time.
Technology has made it possible for the acting and directing styles in operas to change; specifically through the use of microphones, video feeds and sound monitors.
Singers in Dallas Opera productions do not wear microphones. If you go to see The Lighthouse this weekend, you will hear the singers' voices unaided and without enhancement, all the way to the back of the house. However, there are microphones in the orchestra pit, although the audience may never know it. The mics in the pit are not for the house, they are for the monitors onstage. The singers in The Lighthouse move all over the place, they climb rope ladders and go up winding staircases. All the while, they must stay in pitch. The monitors help them do that.
The introduction of camouflaged television monitors, projecting a direct video feed of the conductor, have allowed the singers to see the conductor from anywhere on the stage, keeping them in time.
In this video, Dallas Opera sound engineer Brent Brito shows how it all works.
Appearing in “FILLING IN THE GAPS”: Dallas Opera Sound Engineer Brent Brito. Produced and edited by Emily Trube and Eric Shaddix. Interview by Emily Trube.
Gregory Sullivan Isaacs' feature about the project is here.
Keith Cerny's Off the Cuff column about creating new opera is here.