Aural Postcard: Nixon in China

I have seen many operas but I LOVED this one. Apparently, in the media it’s getting a bit of a controversial reputation…it is a “modern” opera. Snore! I can’t believe people are such dinosaurs. The opera too, though, it full of contradictions. On one hand, their dedicated crowd is very conservative in what it wants, but on another hand – they are trying to expand their fan be se to younger populations, so they have these ridiculous quasi-hip campaigns on social media and web – a FB page, a blog, an online Flash manga comic. I must admit, I am all for modernizing the genre but the rest of the “youth outreach” is really putting me off. But none of that matters now because I LOVED this production. It had everything – a great music (not the best I ever heard but so moving…), great libretto, current, political topic, amazing set – use of projections and lighting effects and beautiful transitions between projection and physical set, spotlight image projection later on, amazing stage ambience lighting; giant poster props; a fantastic dance performance choreographed by Wen Wei Wang with some amazing dancers; a bunch of grotesque insinuations, some profane language; lots of satirical political humour, Chairman Mao’s wife in drag (well…in a stiff pant suit) fake-shooting the resistance in the theatre play; communist memorabilia galore; historical footage; and even real bicycles on stage. Amazing!!!

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And yes, I did my usual Aural Postcard here again…details below. Annotation: Recorded with my iPhone, in high-quality mono, pictures taken with the iPhone and I used a bit less the sound level meters. I cross-checked “dB”‘s readings with SPL’s readings and dB was about 10 dB off (higher) So – keep that in mind. Otherwise, I focused more on recording different sections of the ambience in between acts. As well, I managed to capture a moment before and after the orchestra started Act 3, and even some moments of singing. Narrative: It was *such* a thrill for me to be in that environment again….there is something about the Queen Elizabeth Theatre that just feels more like a proper concert hall then Performance Works, the Orpheum and even the Chan Centre (which supposedly features the best acoustics in town). I always cherish the special time when I go to concerts or operas (rare treat)  and the sounds of the ambience inside an Opera house or concert hall is a big part of that special treat. Because I am alone, I like to savour those sounds of people quietly talking among themselves, ushers checking tickets, the spatial acoustics and visual splendour of the foyer…Because it’s all meant to be “high class” everything that is done, every sound that is made (especially by the staff) is very soft, slow, careful, not to disrupt that suspension of disbelief that Opera patrons have paid more than a good price for. IMG_0300Inside the concert hall, the space feels large and majestic yet very warm because of the natural materials and fabric used to dampen some of the unwanted reverberations of the orchestra. Even the reflective plates position along both sides of the ceiling/wall junctures were made of wood I noticed. As soon as the orchestra started the warmth of their acoustic soundmaking felt as a caress to my soul, and my ears – tired of forever being affronted with [overly] amplified sound , masking environments, where people have to use their voices to compete over other sonic invasions, even if they don’t wish to. The orchestral sounds were warm, full-bodied, and again, what I noticed about them was the ways in which they are different from what I *am* used to these days – media and amplified experiences. Most media maintain a constant and fairly shrill dynamic range (poised in the most acute range of our hearing – 1 to 4 kHz) that is compressed, so as to allow constant sound pressure levels that keep our attention (with the exception of advertisements which use limiters in order to fit a much higher quality, wider dynamic range soundscapes into the allowable sound level measure slots for TV). In contrast, the orchestra at this performance reminded me what acoustic sound is like – it breathes and moves with the effort of humans, to be heard by the naked ears of humans; and also, that the classical aesthetic where music goes from very very quiet to very very loud stands out in the narrowband soundscape that we are usually immersed in. I really noticed how I had to strain my ears at times to catch the soft, gentle passages, and remembered the joy of doing that – the reward that comes with acute listening! With loud, booming passages too, I enjoyed letting them vibrate through my body, knowing that no acoustic sound is typically going to be harmful to my hearing (something I worry about often in other situations). A noteworthy feature of this particular performance (being “modern”) was the use of soundscape elements – “sound effects” that, along with the musical composition style, made the opera seem at times like film sound. Used sparingly and contextually (airplane roar, rain fall, etc.) I found these sound effects to add so much to the experience, and had to remind myself incredulously that this is definitely NOT a typical part of opera sound. Oh…the times. The other thing I noticed right away as a contrast to what has become “default” in at least my life is the non-amplified singing. These days, people amplify speech, warm acoustic singing even in small venues, so being in a huge hall with a full orchestra and opera singers who are still using only the power of their voice for soundmaking, for emoting and articulation, is fascinating and amazing! Below I’ve recorded a little sample, showing indeed how difficult and different it is for singers to try and compete with the orchestra, and with the vast space they are expected to fill with their voices. Not just that – their parts involve a lot of dynamic range shifts as well, so often they *have* to sing quietly – a feat harder to achieve than actually belting out the notes. In those moments us – the audience – have to once again strain to hear, to feel, to connect – and are rewarded for doing so (in my opinion at least). Delightfully different:


The other issue I recorded so that I can address it, is the *acoustic community* so to speak, of an opera experience. Those mundane sounds during, and in between sections of the actual performance that are quite strongly a characteristic of and define “opera culture.” They are full of meaning. The coughing and shifting during those strained, dramatic, emotive silences in the score are highly looked down upon, yet happen; the whispering between friends intended to be private, but oh-so intrusive in the magic circle of  the opera performance; the inevitable whining of children whose parents have visions of grandeur for their offspring, enculturating them from a young age at the expense of the rest of us; the clapping – never to be done between sections, only between acts and ideally – only at the end of the performance, communicates one’s level of experience with “opera culture”; the role of applause used to communicate the untenable gratitude and enjoyment that we, the audience, have received from the performance, increasing in intensity for each performer we liked best; the role of silences, necessary in order for the performance to begin and progress; the soundmark of  orchestral tuning – that signal the act is about to begin, pleasant in its discordance and its predictability, familiarity – definitely a big nostalgic cornerstone for me. Finally, there are those mundane sounds during the breaks between acts, when silence gives way to quiet chattering, then louder commenting, shifting of chairs, shuffling of feat, downing of cocktails, smarting conversations in the lobby, clamouring for the use of the lavatory, rushing back at the call-and-chime, beaconing us back to the hall. The sound sequence below is a combination of three different moments of ambience that I recorded before Act 3 of the show – as the time drew near to the beginning, more people came back in and the ambience gradually increased, as noted in the 3 segments, building up to a complete silence at the cue of the conductor poised to start the orchestra; followed by applause and then the warm music fills the space again. I find it both fascinating and unfortunate that a few coughs and sneezes are still louder than the orchestra (partially because of proximity of course – and I was on the balcony – a bit farther from the “sweet spot” in the hall). Still, perhaps if I wasn’t recording and paying attention to them, in all likelihood they wouldn’t have ripped me out of the luscious embrace of the orchestral music…

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