Lyric Opera of Chicago is getting miked for Oklahoma!

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"Our singers don't need microphones" has been the billboard boast of Lyric Opera. And it's true for the usual fare. But when Lyric did a much-admired Show Boat last year as part of its regular season, they did need amplification, and they needed more than they had. In parts of the 3,600-seat house, some spoken parts of the show were lost.

That's been fixed for Oklahoma!, opening this weekend for a 16-performance run, says deputy general director Drew Landmesser. Scheduling it as a postseason offering aimed at a general audience (as opposed to opera regulars) freed them up to get the place wired.

Opera purists don't like microphones, Landmesser notes. Last year, with the musical (and its setup) running in repertory with opera as part of the subscription season, Lyric erred on the side of subtlety.

This year, with the musical as a stand-alone, and Lyric's recent five-year commitment to doing an annual Rodgers and Hammerstein work, the company invested in a sound system that more than doubles last year's capacity. Landmesser says the goal is still "natural" sound, but to get that with amplification, you need a system powerful enough to handle the job with ease. If you have to crank it, you're going to get distortion.

Along with the sound system, a 37-piece orchestra (much larger than what contemporary audiences typically get with a Broadway show), and the original orchestrations, will "let people hear what Oklahoma is supposed to sound like," Landmesser says.

If it works, the kudos should go to sound designer and composer Mark Grey, the whiz behind the technology. Longtime soundman for composer John Adams (and many others), Grey is the guy who made Lyric shake for Doctor Atomic. His own composing commissions include a soon-to-be-written opera version of Frankenstein, which maybe we'll get to see at Lyric someday.

Grey says amplified sound tends to be "two-dimensional," while the sound of a traditional opera is wider, broader, and, at the same time, more intimate. But even for opera, he adds, the way we listen is changing. Things like the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts to movie theaters are delivering sound that's different from what's being heard in the opera house; younger audiences are accustomed to the clarity of digital; and contemporary composers are incorporating the vast, electronic soundscape.

"I think technology will play a huge part on the opera stage. We're at the forefront," Grey says. "But in a case like Oklahoma!, we want to keep it as natural as possible."

Natural and audible, that is.

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