This excerpt is from Chapter 3 of “Music on My Beat” by James Roos.
As it happened, my second week on the job the Miami Opera launched its season with Puccini’s La Boheme, starring none other than Pavarotti opposite Renata Scotto. When the opening-night curtain whisked up, I was flabbergasted to see seven large microphones dangling above the singers and chorus. The stage was so amplified that each singer’s step became an echoing thud.
Pavarotti and Scotto ambled up to the nearest microphone and sang in three-quarter voice. When they moved away from the mikes, their voices, of course, changed in volume and color. The blatant amplification turned their timbres unflatteringly metallic.
At intermission I learned that this kind of miking was a Miami Opera “tradition.” I was determined it wouldn’t remain one if I could help it. True, Dade County Auditorium isn’t the most resonant house for singers, but this sort of flagrant blasting was ridiculous. I concluded my first review of the company by observing that the orchestra pit was too small for an opulent Puccini orchestra, but noted this would be “another day’s tale of woe.” For now, “away with those microphones at once!”
I might as well have shoved red-hot needles under [opera founder Arturo] Di Filippi’s fingernails. Next morning, he stormed into the Herald, headed straight for the senior managing editor, George Beebe, and demanded that I be fired. Later that day, Beebe called me in and asked whether there wasn’t some other place in the paper than a review where I might have suggested eliminating microphones at the opera. I was puzzled and said I believed the purpose of a review was to evaluate a performance and the factors affecting it — in this case, amplification. George just shook his head sadly.
Several days later I learned that Beebe, a longtime opera board member and friend of Di Filippi’s, was due to be elected chairman of the opera the following season. He was in an awkward position. He adored DiFilippi and ordinarily would have done almost anything in his power to make the maestro happy. And he agreed with him that microphones were a good thing at the opera. But now he had this upstart critic to contend with.
When Di Filippi realized he couldn’t get his way at the Herald, he decided to take matters into his own hands and told acquaintances that he planned to ask the Saturday night opera audience at Boheme to rally behind him in support of mikes at the opera. That new, young Herald critic was “a little Hitler,” he railed.
Now, I’d already met with Dr. Di, who’d struck me as an extraordinary but strong-willed man. After all, he had singlehandedly put Miami on the operatic map, and he wasn’t about to be pushed around. I was sure he wouldn’t change his mind, or his tactics, easily. So I phoned him and said, “I understand you want to talk to the audience Saturday night about the microphone situation. Why not let the audience decide whether there should be microphones at the opera?
“Saturday night,” I suggested, “perform the first half of the opera with microphones and the second half without, then get the audience’s response,” To my everlasting surprise, Di Filippi agreed but failed to specify precisely how he would gauge approval or disapproval, short of installing an applause meter. Nor had I thought about that in making my rash proposal. But on Saturday, before the curtain lifted, the good doctor’s voice came hollering from the theater’s public address system.
“Ladies and gentlemen, tonight — once and for all — we will decide whether there will be microphones at the opera or not.” Di Filippi had turned up the amplification so loud that people were put off by his haranguing sound. But the performance spoke for itself. The metallic ping in both Pavarotti’s and Scotto’s voices vanished when the mikes were shut off. The audience voice vote was overwhelmingly against microphones. Di Filippi asked for a second voice vote, but it, too, was thunderously against amplification.
He hadn’t anticipated a “no” vote. In fact, if the Monday night opera crowd, composed of his older and wealthier supporters, had been polled instead of the Saturday night audience, the mikes would probably have stayed put. But the Saturday nighters were a more democratic, opera-loving crowd, and luckily things went my way. In my review I made sure to praise Di Filippi for “placing conviction on the line” and airing “a vital question for the good of Miami Opera.” The next day I received a hand-delivered letter: “Dear Jim, Thank you for making my face a little happier! Arturo Di Filippi.”
Of course, microphones didn’t completely disappear from Miami opera performances. For a long while they just went out of sight. The awful hanging mikes were replaced by discreetly positioned foot-level microphones set at low volume to just give singers a slight boost in the admittedly dry acoustics of the hall. But Di Filippi at least came to realize he didn’t need booming amplification — not with the stellar voices he consistently was able to lure to South Florida.
Although Miami Opera productions had tacky settings and humdrum stage direction back then, there wasn’t much to complain about concerning singers. My first season, Pavarotti and Scotto were followed by Richard Tucker and Teresa Kubiak in Manon Lescaut. The flowering ardor of Tucker’s “Donna non vidi mai” still echoes in memory. Placido Domingo, Martina Arroyo and Fiorenza Cossotto starred in Aida.
Arroyo’s opulent soaring as the Ethiopian princess, Cossotto’s darkly sumptuous eloquence as Amneris and Domingo’s power and lyric poetry as Radames turned that production into Di Filippi’s crowning achievement. His health had been deteriorating, and in June Dr. Di’s sudden death put a period to a tempestuous, colorful chapter in Miami musical history.