New York's Met In HD

Apr 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Gary Eskow



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A scene from Gounod’s Romêo et Juliette, one of many Metropolitan Opera performances broadcast in HD

A scene from Gounod’s Romêo et Juliette, one of many Metropolitan Opera performances broadcast in HD

Coloratura performances might not have changed much since Mozart's time, but the opera experience itself is certainly going through a profound sea change. Technological advances have allowed operas to be broadcast on PBS and other outlets in high def and surround, and this season the Metropolitan Opera is also showing eight of its productions live in theaters across the world in HD. It's the latest and boldest step in what has been a long evolution for opera on television.

For more than 25 years, Jay David Saks has been involved in the tech end of the Met's broadcasts, first as engineer, then audio producer. Once an aspiring conductor, Saks got involved in producing classical and Broadway cast albums (and has earned nine Grammy Awards in the process) while working with the Met on the side; when the company's musical director, James Levine, became dissatisfied with the quality of the Met's famous Saturday radio broadcasts, he brought in Saks to handle music production. Untrained as an engineer, Saks developed his technique as a mixer under fire. “I decided that I wanted to mix live myself rather than work with an engineer at the board,” he says. “At that time, there was no post-production at all.” Saks mixes from a permanent control room at the Met with a large window that provides a clear view of the entire stage. “This is extremely useful for opera, where singers constantly move about the stage.

“I used to mix a lot of my recordings back in the 1980s; and even today, when I'm working in post with Ken Hahn at Sync Sound, I function as a co-mixer,” he adds. The Met records dress rehearsals and the live broadcasts of all its HD transmissions, and repurposes material culled from these performances for later television replay on PBS and DVD release.

“We do post-production on all of the HD shows, and the audio work is executed at Sync Sound, my home away from home for the last 20 or 25 years,” Saks says. “The original HD shows themselves are live. Whatever happens — missed notes, mix or video mistakes, warts and all — that's how it goes out. When we're working in post, though, we have options. If the soprano missed a high C but nailed it in rehearsal, we'll insert the good take to fix the spot.”

At the most recent AES show, Saks and several Met engineers looked for a digital console to replace their aging Studer board. “Recall was never that critical to our process when we were simply broadcasting live on Saturdays. These days, we have multiple productions alternating at the same time. We're constantly juggling; sometimes we'll rehearse a show two weeks before its production. And as time goes on, our productions have gotten more and more complicated. They require more microphones and other resources — including reverb — and we find ourselves writing down dozens of notes, drowning in millions of tape strips telling us where the trims, EQ and reverb settings are.”

Wait, did Saks just say that the Met uses reverb in its broadcasts? What would Mozart say? “Here's the thing: For all those years before I got here,” Saks replies, “the broadcasts sounded dry and constricted because the house — while a comfortable listening environment when you're sitting there experiencing a production — yields a dry recorded sound. I use fairly close-miking, along with more distant miking, and without reverb the sound is simply not right and surprisingly doesn't sound the way it actually does live. From the beginning, I started using reverb, even though we only had a spring chamber in the early days!

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