Readers reply: why don’t opera singers deafen each other?

Why don’t opera singers deafen each other? They’re singing loud enough to be heard in the back row, yet they are right in each other’s ears. Brian Dermody, Blessington, Co Wicklow

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Bold of you to think we don’t. Corinne DeJong

As an opera singer we take some care, generally, to not sing directly into the ears of our cast mates. I make certain to adjust my position onstage to take care of my colleague’s ears no matter the situation. There are times when the sheer volume is deafening, but it is infrequent. More often than not it is hard to actually hear onstage. In America, where I mostly perform, stages and houses are built for large audiences and big travelling productions, not just opera. The sound of a pitted orchestra can go straight out and away from the stage, making it necessary for companies to amplify the orchestra and send the feed to speakers backstage, so singers can hear the accompaniment to their singing. This can be more deafening than the singers singing together. It’s a delicate balance no matter what. John Moore

Most of the time singers’ proximity on stage isn’t close enough to warrant concern. Opera singers are more likely to get hearing problems, such as tinnitus, as a result of years of solo practice in confined spaces. Richard Burkhard, operatic baritone

One evening at a performance of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the principle cellist inserted his hearing aids on stage. At the intermission, the opportunity occurred to talk to the second cellist about this, asking if the player was losing his hearing. The surprising response was that he was not inserting aids but earplugs, to protect against the thundering proximity of the piano in the concerto that was on the programme schedule. Perhaps opera singers take similar precautions, or the loud singing indicates that they are already somewhat deaf. Anthony Walter, British Columbia

The reason an operatic voice can be heard in the last row is not volume, but projection and overtones. The human ear is more susceptible to certain sounds, especially higher frequencies, and opera singers take advantage of that. That being said, they will rarely sing directly into someone else’s ear. Even when singing love duets at close quarters, they will face forward to make sure their voice carries into the theatre (and to look at the conductor). In addition to that, theatres are usually huge spaces where sound disperses quickly and isn’t reflected in an uncomfortable way as would be the case in a small room. We do accidentally deafen each other sometimes though, and the same can be said for orchestra musicians! Clara Schneider, aspiring opera singer

I did once have the experience of a Mephistopheles singing his line directly into my ear during the Kermesse scene in Gounod’s Faust and just before I sang a line of my own. I was deaf for a few moments, but fortunately it cleared fairly quickly for the rest of the scene, although I could still feel a buzzing sensation most of the evening. However, singers in general “play angles” and direct the tone out and into the theatre. Even if they seem to be facing and singing at each other from the audience perspective they “angle” to let the voice be heard. It becomes instinctive, even if asked to sing from a tricky physical position, to find body alignment and a way of angling to let the voice resonate and carry. There is little point in singing directly into the stage wings, an exception being one Verdi Lady Macbeth I knew who wanted to create an eerie echo type effect and soften her high note at the end of the sleepwalking scene. AndyPandy21

Trust me. After a day of singing teaching your ears hurt. ladivina69

Opera singers are trained to project their voices out, to the point that they actually can’t hear themselves very well on stage (which also must help the other singers). Projection is just not a matter of the singer screaming their loudest on stage and then ever diminished volume reaching the audience, as would happen in a stage play. Opera singers project through gaps in the orchestra using their training in pitch and resonance, which also means that a note that can be heard clearly over an entire orchestra is not necessarily going to shatter the eardrums of the people she’s sharing the stage with – she’s not trying to scream over an orchestra using sheer volume, she’s projecting a pitch at a resolution that carries to the human ear in the back of the auditorium. Thomas1178

The part about not being able to hear yourself so loudly when singing well is true (generally if it sounds good in your head it sounds muffled to the audience and vice versa). It does equate to an increase in volume for the audience, including fellow singers. Generally speaking the staging is arranged so that for the most part singers are singing out and not directly into each other’s ears. As you learn stagecraft you also learn not to position yourself in such a way as to deafen someone else. It does happen occasionally though. Sheeples

The acoustics of the auditorium – which, if well designed, can carry sound extremely efficiently – and the extreme directionality of the human voice – especially a trained one – can lead a voice on stage to appear to defy the square root law of power loss over distance that physics ordinarily defines: appearing relatively quiet to someone next to you (but off axis to your side) and almost full volume to someone 50 yards away at a resonant sweet spot of the room. HaveYouFedTheFish

That reminds me of the anecdote about the aspiring operatic singer doing his best to emulate Franco Corelli in Tosca “… L’ora è fuggita, e muoio disperato” (the hour has passed, and I am dying in despair). His neighbour across the street, at the end of his tether, shouted back: “No, you are going to be chocked to death if you continue.” Hesperian

It’s a rare event, but it has happened. Back in the 1920s at rehearsals in an unsuitably small Milan rehearsal room for the premiere of Puccini’s Turandot, tenor Arturo Sfumato, in the star role of Calàf, performed an impassioned aria in too close proximity to the left ear of eminent lyric soprano Norma Tivoli, resulting in instant and permanent partial deafness that prevented her from taking the role of Liù and terminated her career. Naturally, the composer and the whole cast were devastated, and the inconsolable Sfumato begged Puccini to insert a song for him to perform in honour of the poor victim of the accident. As history relates, the composer did just that, in the form of what has come to be recognised as one of his greatest masterpieces – the celebrated aria Deafen Norma. ThereisnoOwl




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