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A Soundman’s Dilemma

Bryan Reesman • Audio • February 1, 2009

With the orchestra in the playing space, providing monitors without clashing sound became an issue.

Keeping it simple for a special opera

Veteran sound designer David Meschter has fashioned a career in the avant-garde, working with such legendary figures as Meredith Monk, John Cage and Laurie Anderson. In fact, he is involved with a new Anderson show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) this month. He recently handled a gala for the New York City Opera and also works at the Lincoln Center Festival during the summertime.

A moment from Arjuna’s Dilemma

This pedigree certainly aided him in working on Arjuna’s Dilemma, a recent opera at the Harvey Theatre at BAM that combined Western classical and Indian music. The show required two leads, a five-piece choral ensemble and an orchestra comprised of a string quartet with a double bass, clarinet and flute, two percussionists, and two Indian singers/instrumentalists (one on tabla, the other on harmonium and electric tambura). The central thrust of the story is an appeal to Krishna by a warrior who questions why he must fight and kill friends and relatives who oppose his kingdom. The allegorical tale is centuries old and drawn from the Hindu epic the Bhagavad-Gita. The strength of the 70-minute show was not its story but the magical, mystical score.

After finishing the show’s limited, three-day run in November as part of BAM’s 2008 Next Wave Festival, which followed a previous performance at SUNY Purchase in August, Meschter discussed his experience on the unusual and sonically captivating performance. He observed that many directors and musical directors often mistake the lack of intelligibility in their performers for a sound issue and think that making things louder will solve the problem. With Arjuna’s music director Alan Johnson, whom Meschter has worked with before, this is and has never been an issue. Everyone on Arjuna knew what they were doing. For Meschter, who believes in the spirit of collaboration between designers, directors and cast members, the trick was balancing a wide range of tonalities and frequencies.

Stage Directions
: What challenges did you face with Arjuna’s Dilemma?

David Meschter: I didn’t have to worry about whether not the language is going to come across, because through the rehearsal process and having worked with Alan, I knew that was being taken care of. In many ways, and I don't want to make this an uninteresting interview, I didn't have a lot to do mainly because all of the company was on the right page. Many times what makes my job hard is when I come in and someone is expecting sound to fix something that sound can’t fix or really needs to be dealt with elsewhere.

In an early meeting with composer Doug Cuomo and Alan, I said this is the way I want to approach this and you have to tell me if you want it done differently. When Music-Theatre Group’s Producing Director Diane Wondisford first spoke to me about it, and I understood the small size of the orchestra, we discussed the fact that we most likely wanted this to be a reinforced acoustic effect and have the technology help things be heard acoustically. When we worked on the piece up at Purchase for a week and a half, we started to shift away from that. Doug started to want to hear things louder. I don’t think it was bad, but it's not where we originally started. I think we ended up with an electro-acoustic show.

I got one compliment and one criticism, and I guess they kind of cancel each other out. One person thought it was acoustic, and one real opera buff was horrified that I had put microphones on singers.

They don't tend to amplify opera too much, do they?

They don't. I have done six or seven operas, and the opera world, particularly in America, is terrified and extremely wary of technology and how technology will poison the last remaining pure art form left on planet Earth, which is what many of them feel opera is.

So you had eight vocalists in the show?

They were the five women in the chorus, tabla player Humayan Khan was six and star Tony Boutte was seven. There were basically seven singers, although co-star John Kelly had a couple of lines. We miked every single instrument, and that was a little excessive if we were just doing a reinforced acoustic event. I might have put a few mics over the strings to get a general mix of the strings, but I wasn't sure what we would need. There's never time to add things later once you decide what you really want. I thought I was overspec’ing, but it turns out it was just what we needed. I did put a mic on every instrument, and that allowed us to go from the idea of a reinforced acoustic event to a more electro-acoustic event. I guess we ended up at the border. I don't think people really felt that it was acoustic, but I don’t think we were making things unnaturally loud for the instrumentation. Just putting mics on things and making it louder doesn't make the orchestra sound twice as big. It's just twice as loud. Every once in awhile Doug said it would have been nicer if we could've done it with a larger string section.

Despite the heavy nature of the material, there were still moments of light-heartedness in the show.

What were the biggest problems in dealing with an orchestra that offered a wide range of sounds? What about clashing frequencies and bleed through?

I guess the biggest technical problem in that way was monitors. We ended up adding a few more monitors. When we did it at Purchase, the string quartet, the bass player and the wind players had no need for any kind of monitors whatsoever because they were all sitting close enough and could hear each other well enough. But just the nature of the Harvey Theatre at BAM, being a beautiful but very awkward place to do a show, I didn't want to go with a traditional situation where we would have floor wedges, mainly because they don’t tend to aim where someone is sitting and they will throw more sound… I wanted to keep the monitor sound as low as possible. So the monitors were probably the biggest problem in the show for me. We had two speakers over the bridge for Tony, and then there were some speakers on the floor downstage, and that helped him when he was down at the end of the stairs.

What kind of microphones did you use on each of the singers and players?

On the piano I used a new miking system made by Earthworks, the PM40, which I was very happy with. There are a number of great things about it. It's a small, expandable bar with just two lavalier-sized microphones on little goosenecks about 8 inches long, but it can sit in the piano and has a beautiful, even, natural sound. It's sometimes very hard to get a good sound out of a piano, and it's rather isolating. The only thing in those mics was the piano, and that was good. For the strings I was using DPA 4061s. I don't know what mic I had on the acoustic bass because it was the bass player’s mic. It attached to his bass and sounded fine. All of the headset microphones were DPA 4066s, which are the adjustable headband microphones. Humayan was singing into an AKG 414. Everything else was relatively generic—some Shure SM 57s, a Shure 535 on the tablas, some AKG 451s around the percussion and a Sennheiser 421 on the doumbek.

The allegorical tale of Arjuna’s Dilemma concerns a warrior who must kill friends and relatives who oppose his kingdom.

What kind of board did you use?

We used the Yahama M7CL. It has 48 inputs and we used about 38 for the show. The processing is internal. I used four reverbs for Humayan, the orchestra, the ensemble and Tony. We had some surround speakers, where different reverbs were emphasized in different speakers.

Overall this experience at BAM was very good?

What a nice group of people to work with. It was almost like a vacation. It was still a lot of work, but I’ve done so many jobs that were technically easier but more emotionally taxing. Diane Wondisford runs a very good company, and the performers are excellent. They're great to work with and all open to new ideas.

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