How did you first come to the Met?
I started in the record business in the early seventies, having graduated from a music conservatory. My second job was at RCA Red Seal, and one of our exclusive artists at the time was James Levine. My boss, Tom Shepard, had recorded the Mahler Fourth with Jim and the Chicago Symphony, and he asked me to edit it. I had never met Jim before, but apparently he liked the work that I had done, and from that point on I started working with him on a lot of his records. About five or six years later, I got a phone call from the Met. They were looking to make some changes in their radio broadcast procedures, and James Levine had asked them to approach me about whether I would work on the Saturday matinee broadcasts.
What were some of the changes they wanted to make?
Up until that point the radio broadcasts were produced by an independent outfit, and the Met wanted to update the whole business from beginning to end. Milton Cross, Peter Allen, and the performances themselves were all wonderful. But the minute the music started, it sounded woefully outdated. The mix and balances were flat, the technology was obsolete, and thus the performances weren’t well served. We needed a complete overhaul of the physical infra- structure—the transmission lines, new consoles. I was brought in as the music guy, rather than a technical person. I was delighted to do this, but I had one condition, which was, I have to do the mix myself—hands on the controls, because it was live. This was something I never did as a record producer because I was busy marking up the score in front of me. So I was a little overwhelmed at first, but it was very exciting. If something went wrong, I learned to just plow ahead. And I personally grew to believe quite quickly—and I believe it even more so now—that opera sounds better when you record it live in front of audiences on stage than it does recorded in a studio.
What is the quality you try to capture when you’re in the booth?
You know, Levine used to use the
term "newsreel quality" to describe the old sound. I don’t even know if he re- members having said that, many years ago, but it stuck in my mind. We’re not here merely to archive. We’re here to do the best we can to make you respond as though you’re present in a perfect seat in the house.
Have the HD transmissions and SiriusXM broadcasts affected your work?
I think it’s sharpened my game. Instead of doing 20 shows a year, I’m doing 120 shows a year, plus more rehearsals. The HD shows—it’s so critical to get them right, or as close to right as you can in a live situation, that it has ratcheted up my skills, so to speak.
Being in the movie theater is a very different audience experience. What do you do to make the performance sound as it does in the opera house? I don’t. Because you never can, just as you can’t visually—it’s a fool’s mission. If you’re at a hot performance and sit- ting in a good seat and you can see well and you can hear well and it’s a performance full of vitality and beauty—I want that same response to be generated within you when you’re listening to it through electronic media. What I want is for your reaction to be the same. —Matt Dobkin
This interview was first published in September 2012 in the Met's Season Book and online in December 2012.