Opera is a truly remarkable art form. As with any live performance heavily centred around sound, it’s common to question if microphones are used or not.
Are Microphones Ever Used In Opera Performances? Traditionally mics are not used in opera (for orchestral instruments or singers). Opera singers are trained to sing in a way that can be heard over the orchestra. However, in modern times, mics are sometimes used in larger halls and are a requirement if the operatic performance is to be recorded.
Let’s talk in greater detail about why microphones aren’t typically used in opera as well as the situations that call for the use microphones in opera.
Microphones Are Not Typically Used In Opera
Opera came to be in the late 16th century and early 17th century. This was before the first microphone was invented (the carbon microphone in 1877) and way before microphones were ever used in theatre (early 1950s).
In order for the opera singers to be heard by the audience, then, without any capabilities of sound reinforcement, opera needed two major developments:
- An amphitheatre with acoustics that would allow the singer’s voice to travel far to the back of the audience.
- A method of singing that could be heard at the back of the audience and over the potential accompanying instruments (sometimes full orchestra).
Amphitheatres had been around for many centuries before opera.
Opera houses were later developed to host the opera performances indoors and were designed with the acoustic idea of amphitheatres in mind.
The acoustics of quality opera houses allows the music to be heard clearly by all audience members from the front to the back of the seating area.
Amphitheatres can be thought of as passive amplifiers of sound. I discuss this with more clarity in my article Passive Amplifiers Vs. Active Amplifiers (Sound & Audio).
Opera Singing Method
Opera singers are taught how to project their voices in an incredible way. This projection is needed in order for the opera singers to be heard over a full orchestra.
So how do opera singers sing with such great volume that they can be heard at the back of the room; over the orchestra; without any microphones?
Firstly, an opera singer is trained to project their voices at a yelling-like volume. Creating lot of volume and a high sound pressure level with the voice is essential to be heard over the rest of the music.
Secondly, opera singers are trained to produce certain overtones in their voice. The human voice, like other instruments, has a fundamental tone (the note the singer is singing) and many harmonic frequencies (integer multiples of the fundamental).
Opera singers sing in a way that accentuates the harmonics in the “singer’s formant” around 3 kHz. The orchestra does not produce a great amount of sound in this range. By increasing the presence of these frequencies in their voice, opera singers can effectively “cut through” the sound of orchestra and be heard by the audience clearly.
This increase in volume in the singer’s formant is a common strategy among the lower voice types.
Thirdly, with higher voice types, the mouth of the singer can be shaped to accentuate the resonant frequencies of certain vowels. This helps, again, to boost the sung frequencies and allows the voice to be heard all the way at the back of the room and over the rest of the music.
The Orchestra And Musicians
Like the singers, the orchestra and musicians therein are not miked in traditional opera.
The orchestra produces more than enough volume and does not require any sound reinforcement. Even single instruments will produce enough volume to be heard clearly by the entire audience in a well-constructed opera house.
As mentioned before, operatic singing techniques were developed for voices to be hear over the orchestra. If the singers aren’t miked, then the orchestra certainly ins’t either.
Situations Where Microphones Are Used In Opera
So typically there are no microphones used in opera. However, there are situations where microphones are used:
Recording The Opera
The primary reason microphones would be used in an opera performance is for recording.
If an opera is being filmed or recorded for audio playback, microphones are a must. Without microphones, there would be no sound in the recording!
In this case, it’s critical to capture the singer(s) and music together.
As a general rule, always start with a stereo pair positioned far enough away to capture the full sound of singer and piano or singer and orchestra. This mic setup can be a spaced pair, XY, or any other stereo miking technique you’d like.
For more information on stereo miking techniques, check out my article Top 8 Best Stereo Miking Techniques (With Recommended Mics).
The trick is to capture the performance as you would typically hear and opera. Distance from the performers, great room acoustics, and high-quality microphones are the name of the game here.
Only once you’ve established a great sounding stereo pair would I suggest spot-miking any particular musician or singer. Spot-miking will greatly increase the flexibility of the mix in post-production but should not be a primary way of recording an opera.
When spot-miking the singer, ensure the microphone is a good distance away (at least 4 feet). Opera singers project very loudly, and a close proximity microphone will not, generally speaking, capture the voice in the best way. It is also worth trying to hide the microphone from the view of the audience and cameras to enhance the visual appearance of the performance.
Spot-miking instruments should be done sparingly. If there is only a piano to accompany the voice, close-miking the piano with a stereo pair should give plenty of flexibility in the mix.
If there’s an orchestra, perhaps spot-miking a few key elements would improve the mix in post.
This use of sound reinforcing microphones is a controversial topic in opera.
The purists would say that true opera singers never need amplification.
However, there are some exceptions.
The first exception is if the singer has not fully developed their technique and, therefore, has a smaller voice. This is perhaps the most controversial way of using microphones in any type of live performance.
The second exception is in the very large opera houses.
The goal of an opera house is to sell tickets and fill seats. If the room to so big (or has poor enough acoustics) that the music cannot be clearly heard at the back of the room, then sound reinforcement may be a necessary compromise.
Of course, microphones for sound reinforcement in opera are generally frowned upon. But in the above situations, they may very well be needed!
Does Broadway use microphones? Broadway and other large theatre productions will practically always have all their actors miked-up with lavalier mics. On top of that, microphones are often placed around the stage; are used to capture the sound of the pit band; and are used for communication within the technical crew.
For more information on microphones in Broadway, check out my article Are Microphones Used On Broadway And In Other Theatres?
Do actors wear microphones? Professional actors, when performing on recorded video/film or in live theatre will almost always be wearing small lavalier microphones. It’s rare that a large theatre production would not have its actors miked up. The same is true on a film set, where the actor’s voice is being recorded.
For my recommended microphones for actors, check out my article Best Lavalier Microphones For Actors.