HARMAN, recently named the official sound partner of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, will be making a generous donation of high-performance audio and lighting equipment as part of an expanded partnership between the two entities. What impact will that have on the sound system of the Opera House, which came under fierce critical fire after recent touring productions (in particular, Matilda the Musical) produced muddled sound? The question has taken on a greater urgency since The Kennedy Center announced that it would add Hamilton to its lineup in June of 2018.
For answers, we turned to Kennedy Center staff members Glenn A Turner, Vice President of Production and, for a technical view, John M. Burke, AV System Design Build, two men who are so comfortable with each other they easily complete each other’s thoughts. Their surprising response: the Opera House is perfect. They won’t touch its sound.
“The Opera House doesn’t have an acoustical problem [The world famous tenor] Placido Domingo, who was General Director of The Washington National Opera for nearly seven years told me ‘Don’t mess with the acoustics. You have one of the best 10 opera houses in the world,’” Turner said.
Turner himself got the complaints from patrons over Matilda, Kinky Boots, Billy Elliot, and Book of Mormon. Some, he said, turned out to be diction issues. But the bigger problem, was the equipment brought in by the touring shows, equipment which The Kennedy Center does not control or handle.
Turner insisted that those touring companies had sound problems regardless of venue. He pointed to reviews of Matilda the Musical by Judith Newmark of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (“[I]t’s a big plus if you already know the story, because it is uncommonly difficult to understand the words, both spoken or sung…there may have been issues with the sound system…”), Tom Williams of the Chicago Critic (“I quickly became frustrated by the poor sound system that made the actors, especially the little kids, sound like squeaky chip monks…”), and Scott C. Morgan of the Chicago Daily Herald (“Sound and clarity issues (perhaps caused by an amplification issue for sound designer Simon Baker) affect much of the cast…”)
Matilda, Turner said, had an additional problem: actors not facing the audience. “In Matilda, they sometimes sang facing upstage; actors couldn’t hear their lines and needed cue lights.”
In addition, touring shows don’t get much time for a sound check.
“Broadway producers want 8 shows a week. Sound check with the actors is for a couple of hours, then they have a couple of hours with the crew not there to do some audio balancing, then during the first few shows, the engineer will walk around to check the sound,” Turner said. “There isn’t a sound designer who travels with the shows. Their guys are running cues, which is a mixed blessing. They have some flexibility, but less time to tweak it.”
The engineer has heard a show hundreds of times, and maybe he’s beginning to like a riff a drummer is doing, and won’t even notice that he’s starting to raise that up slightly. They know all the lyrics, so may miss when the vocals aren’t clear,” Burke added.
Touring shows which bring their own sound equipment come with everything deemed appropriate for the tour, Turner said. “When Phantom of the Opera played here – for the fifth time –the head carpenter told me that for the first two versions, it cost a million dollars every time they moved the show. So 25 tractor trailers bring everything they will need because they don’t know whether they will be in Wheeling, WV or The Kennedy Center. This summer’s Phantom of the Opera, South Pacific, White Christmas – not one complaint.”
Turner and Burke aren’t concerned about sound issues for Hamilton, which is heading for the Opera House mid-June, 2018. “Hamilton has one of the finest Broadway sound designers there is, Nevin Steinberg, who did Bright Star and Little Dancer here. Lin-Manuel Miranda comes from a theatre background and uses rap as his diction form in a clear and concise manner. And the way they have staged it, the music will not be overpowering,” Turner said.
Although there will be no change to the Opera House sound system, the Terrace Theater will get new speaker systems, the Concert Hall will have a larger sound console which makes the operation easier, and there will be a new recording studio, with video capabilities added later.
The HARMAN donation will also have a significant impact on the lighting system in the various Kennedy theatre venues, Turner says. The Kennedy Center will now have the intelligent automated lights once reserved for rock shows, called “moving lights.”
“Up until a couple of years ago, we didn’t buy moving lights because they become obsolete so fast, and every designer wanted a new model. Plus maintenance was significantly higher.
“Now all European companies expect us to have moving lights because the best theatres in Europe have them. Rock and roll show [style] has become the way of the world. We used 50 or 60 of them in The Ring Cycle, American Ballet Theatre, opera companies, and the Symphony, for its pop shows, all want them.”
The new Martin by HARMAN systems, Burke explained, use LEDs instead of traditional lighting, which not only saves energy and money but deepens colors. “The LEDs allow you to get more saturated colors with less lumens so we are able to give very deep saturated blues. They don’t generate much heat, so don’t need fans. We couldn’t use [intense traditional lights] for classical concerts before because the fans were so loud.”
The Kennedy Center anticipates more international shows, which will require the use of moving head lights. “The Expansion Project [the Kennedy Center has raised $150 million so far] will attract more international performers and productions that require dynamic in-house lighting equipment for their shows,” the Center said in a recent press release.
The Expansion Project, due to open in 2018, will feature an outdoor video wall where performances can be simulcast, an outdoor performance space and multi-purpose spaces for the Center’s extensive programming, performance and arts education offerings.