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22 October 2015updated 03 Aug 2021 2:27pm

How to tape an opera: recording Orphée et Eurydice

Capturing live opera demands more than a series of mikes attached to the lapels of singers and someone pressing Record.

By Antonia Quirke

“Any mention of the gold lamé trouser suit and the boobs?”

I’m in the basement of the Royal Opera House in London during a Radio 3 recording of a new production of Gluck’s 1774 tragedy Orphée et Eurydice, featuring the esteemed Monteverdi Choir (24 October, 6.30pm, BBC Radio 3). Everybody is looking through the monitor at the American soprano Amanda Forsythe playing the god Amour while dressed like something out of Boogie Nights.

Having assumed that capturing live opera demands a series of mikes attached to the lapels of singers and someone pressing Record, I find it in fact involves a sound balancer, Susan, and her assistant, Adele, continually talking fast and low, minutely fading up and down the acoustics emerging from over 60 places in the theatre where microphones have been positioned and repositioned (“Was that a slight crash?” “Yes, a cello kicking”). The singers rarely wear radio mikes, Susan tells me, because “it can sound too close. You need to hear space and separation and distance. The sense of something happening on an actual stage.”

One of the challenges tonight is the long sections of dance in the production, which must be captured to suggest the bounce and flux of feet yet never overwhelm the ear. The listener must not be too frustrated about things they can’t see. Such diligence was sobering, the love in the room so evident: not just for the music, but for the latticework of tiny decisions that go into making perfect music radio. As the producer, Ellie, sits bent over her score – a dusty great, 1967 library edition, full of pencilled notes and crossings – it is evident that she has seen this particular production several times already, every onstage gesture mentally logged, how each particular performer moves, or even likes to breathe.

The running commentary is spookily prescient, as if these women are mind-readers (“He’ll shift now”). Most memorably, when the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, as Orphée, embraces the British soprano Lucy Crowe’s Eurydice, there is a muffled, lip-smacking noise, very subtle and unusual, open to aural interpretation.

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“A kiss,” murmurs Susan, narrowing her eyes. “A kiss. Yes . . . let’s keep that in.” 

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This article appears in the 21 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister