Classical Music

Microphones in the Opera House!?

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by Karim Blondy and Adrian Rodriguez

The use of microphones in opera productions is a topic that has long been a source of debate among opera enthusiasts and professionals alike. While some argue that the use of microphones detracts from the authenticity of the performance, others argue that they are necessary to enhance the audience’s experience and the performers’ ability to hear and stay in tune with the orchestra.

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Traditionally, operas were not performed with microphones, but these days many performances take place in large theatres which were built for a multiple array of musical productions, mostly electrified music types, not an acoustic art like opera. “One of the main reasons for the use of microphones in opera productions is to ensure that the audience can hear the performers clearly, especially in the case of the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier (SWP),” explained Patrick Belzile, technical director at Opéra de Montréal during the creation of La beauté du monde

SWP seats 2,982 people, making it one of the largest halls for opera. To get a perspective, here is a comparative list with some measurements of the most famous opera houses in the world (from Concert Halls and Opera Houses: Music, Acoustics, and Architecture by Leo Beranek):

Montreal’s Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier

  • Volume: 936,000ft3
  • Height: 77ft (23.5m)
  • Width: 108ft (32.9m)
  • Length: 123ft (37.5m)
  • Seats: 2,982

NYC’s Metropolitan Opera House

  • Volume: 24,724m3
  • Seats: 3,816

Milan’s La Scala

  • Volume: 11,252m3
  • Seats: 2,289

Paris’s Opéra Garnier

  • Volume: 10,000m3
  • Seats: 2,131

Vienna’s Staatsoper

  • Volume: 10,665m3
  • Seats: 1,709

Based on those numbers and considering other factors such as type of surface and shape of the hall, here are some of the acoustical problems observed at SWP:

The high and semi-opened ceiling doesn’t allow adequate reflections because the sound has to travel too far before it hits a surface and doesn’t reflect enough energy back to the main floor. The sound stays trapped on the stage and muddles up the music.

There are no hard surfaces to the side of the proscenium, so no lateral reflections of the sound energy toward the main floor.

Although the Metropolitan Opera House possesses the largest number of seats, SWP is the biggest in size requiring more volume from the sound source in order to be heard throughout the hall.


When picking up the sound of the operatic voice, microphones must be as neutral as possible. During our visit to SWP, Neumann shotgun condenser microphones were placed on the floor along the nose of the stage, on the edge of the pit. Sometimes microphones must be camouflaged within the set to pick up the voices of singers who are situated toward the back of the stage or behind the scenes. By placing the microphones a few feet from the singers, the sound picked up is more natural than if the microphones were placed on the singers or if the singers wore headset microphones. With this sound system, it is necessary to follow the movements of singers on stage, to amplify only the microphones close to the singers when they are singing and to shut off microphones that are not in use. To accomplish this, the sound engineer needs to operate the mixer throughout the show. if all the microphones were just left open throughout the sound would be of poor quality, because a voice that enters several microphones placed at different distances creates an unnatural phase in the sound.

The loudspeakers

For a rock concert, the public address system (PA) alone is responsible for driving the high sound pressure level expected in this genre, so the speakers need to be powerful and drive all frequency bands to all sections of the hall. Consequently, the PA is much louder than the source sound coming from the stage.

In the case of opera, the main sound source comes from the musicians on the stage. The PA is used to direct sound precisely to the parts of the hall that need it. This type of loudspeaker is able to control which frequency bands will be reinforced (bass, medium, treble) and send them to the different sections of the room that need it. The PA could also help to compensate for the reverb that is naturally missing in the hall. In opera, the PA must never equal or surpass the level of the sound on stage, or the result would sound forced and unnatural. In crossover genres, this kind of approach is necessary and makes the singer’s voice sound “larger than life”—for example that of Andrea Bocelli.

Sound reinforcement for the artists

Sound reinforcement of an opera is sometimes also necessary for the artists who sing on stage. Singers who move on stage need to be able to hear the orchestra in the pit all the time. To do this, the sound of each section of the orchestra is picked up by microphones and is redirected to speakers hidden on the stage so that the singers are able to hear the orchestra properly, even if they are singing within the set.

Economical and practical reasons have recently made the use of microphones prevalent in some modern opera houses, primarily to compensate for the acoustical flaws in some multipurpose modern theatres. There is also the tendency and perception that “louder is better.” Modern audiences are accustomed to loud entertainment: TV, pop concerts, music, headphones, etc. This could be unconsciously pushing opera producers to mic it up and turn it up.

Thanks to acoustician Romain Dumoulin from SoftdB.

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