This is part II of the San Francisco Opera on-site interview with SF Opera multi-media director Frank Zamacona along, this part with his sound engineer Michael Chen. Zamacona begins in the conference room used where he, his crew, the opera singers and opera director David Gockley discuss the video shoots. He scrolls through the recorded operas on a flat screen mounted near the ceiling in a corner.
Tonight, Wednesday, April 6, KQED will present one of his choice opera videos, the happy ‘Show Boat’ with Bill Irwin. This is part of the series on Thursday nights which started March 31 and runs through April. KQED will repeat ‘Show Boat’ at 8 pm tonight; then Thursday, April 7 at 2 am. The series continues with ‘Norma’ – April 7, 8 pm; ‘Susannah’ – April 14, 8 pm; ‘Cinderella’ – April 21, 8 pm.
Related: Bill Irwin appearing in 1927 epic ‘Show Boat’ with Francesca Zambello directing
Sondra Radvanovsky sings the extremely challenging title role in tomorrow’s presentation on KQED, Bellini’s bel canto ‘Norma’. ‘Norma’, a complete departure from the wacky and warm hearted epic ‘Show Boat’ directed by Francesca Zambello, concerns a Druid priestess who must lead her people against the Romans although she has had two children with a Roman. She considers killing the two children but in the end when she is to be burned alive, she begs that her two children be spared.
Related: Video director Frank Zamacona and David Gockley defining state of the art
Zamacona, dressed in Levi’s and a business shirt as if it’s casual Friday, scrolled through video archives: He says of the listings, ‘This was the ballpark. They’re all here (library of operas), Salome, Falstaff, Hoffman, Show Boat, Siegfried, Heart of a Soldier, Susannah, Sweeney Todd, a million Toscas, Traviata, we probably have a lot of Traviatas (that we recorded).’.
C: How close could you get for Sweeney Todd? Did you get some good bloody close ups-how did you shoot the slide [the barber chair used for dispatching the barber’s victims]?
We got pretty close. The side angle (as the victim slide down the slide).
C: That would be interesting to have a camera, a Go Pro at the top or bottom of the slide.
There you go!
(still scrolling through the Library of captured operas since 2007) So this was Wagner . . . this was a rehearsal.
C: Is he [Donald Runnicles, former conductor] still coming back for things?
He came back for Trojans and I imagine he is going to come back for more but I don’t know exactly which ones. Donald is like a metronome, he is on the money every time.
C: Can the conductor hear you, are they on your mic system?
Just my crew. It’s just us.
Xerxes . . . this was cool.
So you can see that this how we study each opera. I used some of these operas when I was teaching that seminar for the Adlers, showing them what not to do, this is what to do (showing a scene). I pointed out the continuity of movement and trying to get them to be consistent. They are taught, ‘whatever it takes to get the notes out’, that’s what you do. So you have to respect that.
So, we’ll go upstairs now and see the control room area.
Michael Chen, sound engineer
Michael Chen stands tall and lean, probably six feet tall with a gentle, pleasant and professional demeanor and voice to match. He’s young, maybe 30 and seems to have a relaxed and upbeat manner as he sits before a set of video screens and controls that fill the little sound engineering room. He explains, ‘At this stage the mixing essentially is for a product that just goes to radio. So there’s a lot of details I will probably not fuss over since it’s not for a video product, where you see some singers and you want to hear their voices a certain way, depending on how Frank framed them with the camera . . . ‘. The two men, Zamacona and Chen, chat with a tone of relaxed familiarity and respect, with an educational tone.
Michael Chen continues: You are getting a rough live mix in this room. I’m sitting here during the show doing the mixing, trying to make the singers stay in the right proportion with the orchestra. They move all over the stage and I use microphones that are fixed in the ground in front of them unless it’s a show like ‘Sweeney Todd’ or ‘Show Boat’ where we have wireless mics on them. I spend my whole time chasing them around.
So on my score, up on the screen I would see where they are on the stage, I try to use my ears and some notes I put in my book to remind myself how much I need to bring their level up. The orchestra, they pretty much take care of themselves. They control all their dynamics with the conductor. Once in awhile I want to bring out a solo on a harp or something special. For the most part they can balance themselves without me ever touching them.
C: How about these Broadway operas, are they really different except for the mics?
Michael Chen: It’s a different approach. I try to make it sound a little different. Like in Moby Dick, the music to me sounded more cinematic, more like I would hear a Hollywood film score. These more traditional operas, I try to give a more concert sound like you would hear in the house.
Zamacona: What about Show Boat, Show Boat was kind of in between those?
Chen: Show Boat, as a musical, that kind of music wants to have the voices above the orchestra than in a Wagnerian piece. Although in Wagner I want to control that too since sometimes in Wagner’s music can sometimes overpower the singers, just the way it was written, so I’m trying to help them out. Just so you can hear something in these really big moments.
C: How was it dealing with Bill Irwin’s voice?
Chen: I love him, he has such a strong performance voice it was a breeze to mix him. We had good microphone and rig to put on him and it sounded great. As long as the microphones aren’t having a technical problem it’s actually quite easy to mix and I literally just bring it up to where it sounds good. Wait till they’re done with their line, follow the book and take him out, they’re done.
There’s preparation time for that, I have to spend more time noting, ‘oh he’s done with his line and I’ll take his mic out and he’ll go off stage’, I don’t want to hear what he’s doing off stage. So I need to really note that.
Zamacona: It’s a lot of notes. It’s like his blocking.
Chen: And also the singing, when somebody is singing right in front of another, that’s very tricky too, like a duet: One person is going to get on his or her mic and their voice is going into the other singer’s mic and their mic at the same time and it doesn’t sound good. It sounds like they are not clear, you have to be careful which one to bring up. That’s a tricky thing to memorize how they are blocked and when they are facing each other to decide. For both of them I will just use one mic and that works better.
C: Is it common to get a smaller singer with a higher voice?
Chen: Yes there are singers whose voices just don’t cut through.
C: You’ve got the Bellini and the Rossini, the different styles?
In some cases they do it on purpose and they want to make it an intimate moment and so I try to figure out if this is artistic license or are their voices struggling that night.
Zamacona: I find that voices are better at night than in the afternoons.
Chen: They probably are. They might be more warmed up by the end of the day than in that matinee show. They don’t warm up as quickly.
C: Do you also get them tired at the end of the night?
Chen: For a long show yes. You definitely notice some of the singers are really getting tired. And the conductor too.
C: I remember from being a super, we knew the difference between a Friday night and a Sunday matinee.
Chen: Or after a long week of rehearsals and then we open up and start to get tired.
Zamacona: Ian Robertson (SF Opera Chorus Director), he sits there [in the sound booth near Chen].
Chen: Some of the other music staff sit with me. They have taken their notes with the orchestra and will give me a point I can edit. The choices of which performances to use and when is based on the music staff’s list. ‘From this measure to here, use this’. From this measure to here . . . use this part’.’ I try to cut it all together so you don’t even hear an edit and it’s all one show to you.
Zamacona: Then we have to match whatever he does.
Chen: Yes that’s the tricky part, you can talk to Francis about his tricks of the trade to make that work.
[Exit sound booth, enter video booth with Francis]
To come: Part III, with video editor Francis in the video editing booth.