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The Perilous Quest for a Voice to Say Volumes : Audio Books: Finding the right person to read a work aloud is a fine art. Bad narrators can make listeners tune out.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The American heiress is in love with a mysterious, imposing man but she’s engaged to a boorish Scottish duke. She shows contempt for her fiance throughout Jude Deveraux’s romance novel “The Duchess,” and finally lets her internal struggle out after he kills a deer for sport.

“Don’t you do anything useful?” she shouts. “Don’t you do anything other than kill things?”

In print, the passage shows her strong-willed side. On the audio cassette version of the book, voiced by a male actor who takes a stab at a falsetto voice, she sounds like Sammy Davis Jr.

“I don’t have any problem with men reading female parts, but this sounds really silly,” says Leslie Oelerich, editor of Audio Garden newsletter, which reviews voice performances.

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Such are the pitfalls of audio voice casting, where producers walk a fine line to get just the right actor for the right book. The task is loaded with risks: The slightest detail can make a listener turn off the tape.

“It doesn’t matter how good the book is, there’s nothing worse than the wrong narrator,” says Claudia Howard, producer for Recorded Books Inc. in Prince Frederick, Md. “What it takes is imagination, the ability to live every single sentence you say. It’s not just mouthing the words, but being there.”

A decade ago, when the audio book business barely existed, not every publisher paid close attention to speech patterns or voice inflections. But audio books have boomed in popularity to about $1.2 billion in sales this year, according to the Audio Publishers Assn. That’s about 80 million books sold. At the same time, the recordings have become more sophisticated, demanding lively vocal performances.

“It used to be that you would just plunk a reader down in a chair, put music at the top and the end and they would start reading,” says Maya Thomas, producer for Time Warner AudioBooks. “It worked, but it was not much of an interpretation.”

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More often than not, the obvious choices--the authors themselves--are not the ones reading their works. John Grisham doesn’t read “The Chamber"; Michael Beck does. Stacy Keach voices Scott Turow’s “Pleading Guilty.”

Many authors “are no good at it,” says Ray Bradbury, who has read about a dozen of his works on tape and spoken-word albums. “They’re not actors. I got started as an actor, when I was 12.”

So many producers at New York publishing houses scout for the best voices on Broadway. They rely on about 50 performers who routinely do audio voices.

“Stage actors are experienced in staying up there and saying a lot of words over a long period of time,” says HarperAudio producer Rick Harris. “By and large, my experience is that any really good stage actor can do this.”

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For the upcoming audio book “The Secret Life of Laszlo: Count Dracula,” by Roderick Anscombe, Harris picked David Dukes, who recently appeared on Broadway in Arthur Miller’s “Broken Glass.” Dukes was “the best male actor we know who can project a sensuous menace,” Harris says.

But Dukes’ Count doesn’t have a Transylvanian accent, even though the novel is told from the vampire’s point of view.

“I chose not to use an accent,” Dukes says. “It’s for an American audience. (As the narrator), you’re trying to lure the audience into the story. You try not to remove him from the listener.”

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Instead, Dukes uses more flair in voicing supporting characters, who have to be memorable to listeners even though they may be in only a short part of the story. When he voiced Mario Puzo’s “The Fourth K,” he used Kennedy-esque Boston accents for some of the smaller parts. In Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series, he voiced a galactic general like George C. Scott in “Patton.”

When it comes to doing a woman’s part, most actors make it as subtle as possible.

“You don’t try to do a woman’s voice,” says Frank Muller, who has done almost 100 audio books since he started in 1979. “I just try to lighten the tone to establish the character.”

Muller, in preparing for his vocal performances, reads the work at least once before going into a studio. Other voice actors wing it. “Laugh-In” star Arte Johnson never read Dave Barry and Russell Baker before he recorded their books.

“Many times I will be absolutely hysterical laughing at what I am reading,” Johnson says. “But I love to read raw. I’m reading it as fresh as I possibly can, without any preconceived notions.”

More and more, producers are depending on recognizable names to do audio books. A-list performers, such as Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Whoopi Goldberg, already have done them.

“People can identify with them,” says Cindy Jo Hinkleman, production coordinator for Dove Audio in Beverly Hills. “Especially if they see a big name does a current book, it gives that book all the more credibility.”

Voice actors are paid a standard rate of $114.50 per hour, and the performers usually spend about six to eight hours recording books, according to the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists. Celebrities are paid much more to read, although it is far from what they would get for a TV show or movie, Hinkleman said. She and other producers declined to say how much they paid their top-name talent.

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In the past few months, Dove got Meryl Streep to read a collection of works called “Women on Women, Men on Men.” Ben Kingsley read some H.G. Wells classics, and Glenda Jackson, now a member of the British Parliament, recorded some of Jane Austen’s works.

“We don’t get to do radio, whereas our predecessors did,” says Blair Brown, who just finished reading “Now You See Her,” by Whitney Otto, for Time Warner AudioBooks. “And every older actor I’ve talked to who did radio said it was the most fun because you’re not bound by the limitations of your physical self.”

That doesn’t mean a big name is the right choice.

“In some cases, it’s not really suited,” said Amy Lewis of Dercum Audio in West Chester, Pa. “It’s waving a flag. Meryl Streep read ‘Out of Africa.’ Half the time you were thinking ‘This is really intriguing.’ The other half, you were thinking, ‘This is Meryl Streep.’ ”

Few producers fret about casting famous names for autobiographies. The author almost always reads their work. It’s their life story. Dan Quayle read “Standing Firm” for Harper Audio and Barbara Bush is due to record her upcoming memoirs for Simon & Schuster Audio.

Producers scramble, however, when world events put an author out of reach. Nelson Mandela’s memoirs are coming up at Time Warner, but his election as South Africa’s president makes it impossible for him to sit in a recording booth for several days. The publisher is now looking for a well-known African American actor to take the part.

Earlier this year, Simon & Schuster had to find someone to read the memoirs of Virginia Kelley, President Clinton’s mother, who died in January. The publishers sent President Clinton a list of possible readers--mainly actresses with Southern voices. His choice: Rue McClanahan, one of his mother’s favorite actresses, whom she had met at the 1992 Democratic National Convention and at Clinton’s inauguration.

Although Kelley had a “deep, rich throaty voice,” McClanahan didn’t try to replicate it in the book, “Leading With My Heart.”

“I wanted to get the flavor of Virginia as much as possible, but without being her,” McClanahan says. “Imitating her wouldn’t have been appropriate. So it’s the spin you give to it. It’s kind of the humorous approach to expression. Some of the colloquialisms.”

Recently, McClanahan got a letter from Clinton: “Mother’s story could not have been in better hands or voice.”


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