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Opera Pacific Director Defends Use of Amplification

Times Staff Writer

In response to debate over the extent to which Opera Pacific has used electronic amplification in its productions, the company’s general director said Monday that amplification--intentional and inadvertent--has been used in five of the six operas and musicals staged in its first two seasons.

Further, in a written statement issued Monday, David DiChiera said that while he thinks it will be unnecessary, he “will certainly consider” using vocal amplification in grand operas in the future if “the audience would be better served by using sound enhancement.”

DiChiera issued the statement outlining the company’s use of amplification because “obviously, there has been some miscommunication as to the type of amplification that was used during our first season in our opera, versus our operetta and musical theater productions.”

At a meeting of the California Arts Council last week at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, DiChiera had stated that “Opera Pacific has never engaged in vocal amplification of our opera productions, nor is it our intention to do so.”

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At the Dec. 15 meeting, the arts council reversed an earlier decision that cost Opera Pacific $19,000 in grant money and a reduced CAC rating based on a report that the Costa Mesa-based organization had used vocal amplification at a January performance of “Aida” at the Center. Although the council’s vote last week formally returned Opera Pacific’s CAC rating to its original level, a decision on whether to reinstate the $19,000 was shelved until July because there are no funds available in the current budget.

DiChiera’s statement provided a production-by-production explanation of the extent to which amplification was used by Opera Pacific. In the statement, DiChiera differentiated between opera, operetta and musical theater, as well as between the amplification of spoken word and singing.

In the 1987 production of “La Boheme,” for example, the string section of the orchestra was amplified and monitors were used to amplify the orchestra to the stage, the statement said.

“Because the pit is in front of the stage,” DiChiera elaborated in an interview Monday, “it could very well have been that the projection of the voices was picked up by the microphones.”

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When the full operatic version of “Porgy and Bess"--as opposed to the Broadway musical--was staged in 1987 by the Houston Grand Opera in conjunction with a consortium of opera companies that included Opera Pacific, singers’ voices were amplified throughout performances at the Center, although they were not at some other stops on the national tour.

In 1988, in “Die Fledermaus,” the written statement said, “sound enhancement was used for the purpose of projecting the spoken dialogue. Sound system was reduced to negligible levels during singing.”

However, DiChiera said in the interview, amplification for “Die Fledermaus” was under the control of a sound technician who may have reduced, rather than stopped, the amplification when the singing began “so (that) there wasn’t such a discrepancy between the spoken word and the singing.”

In the case of “Aida,” the written statement said, “monitors were used to mike the orchestra to the stage so that singers could hear the orchestra.”

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Added DiChiera: “I can’t say that the enhancement on stage didn’t in some way enhance the singing in the house, although I would doubt that it happened.”

Tere Romo, the CAC’s program manager for organizational support program, said Monday that amplification of voices picked up by mikes in the orchestra pit is “really hard to control and very different from someone doing it intentionally. The panel drew the line at someone knowingly doing it. They were very forceful about that.”

Panel members did not express strong feelings about the use of amplification for operettas or musical theater, Romo said. San Diego Opera general director Ian Campbell, who originally raised the issue of amplification before the CAC that led to the debate, had “no comment” on DiChiera’s statement, a spokeswoman for Campbell said.

DiChiera said he did not respond earlier to critics who wrote that singers’ voices sounded amplified in “Aida” and complaints that microphones were used in “La Boheme” and “Die Fledermaus” because “it’s my policy not to refute or get into any discussions with critics.”

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For the musicals “West Side Story” and “Kismet,” singers’ voices were miked throughout the productions, the statement said.

As for the future, DiChiera repeated in the written statement his intention not to use vocal enhancement for grand opera productions.

“However,” his written statement concluded, “each show has a life of its own. If, during the extensive rehearsal period, I feel that the audience would be better served by using sound enhancement, I will certainly consider it. . . . I do not expect that it will be necessary.”

Romo said that “given how the panel reacted last time” when it believed vocal amplification had been used during “Aida,” she doesn’t think DiChiera would again use amplification for grand opera.

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