1988 | Mixing a live ‘Don Giovanni’ for Channel 4

2023-07-16 0 By David

Don Giovanni -The Royal Opera House ‘Farewell to Sir John Tooley’ 23rd July 1988.

In 1988 Jeremy Isaacs left Channel 4 and headed to the Royal Opera House to replace Sir John Tooley as Director. Jeremy had been the great head of Channel 4 since it started and had given many of us in the freelance broadcast world a wonderful outlet for our talents.

As a departing gesture, he commissioned a live broadcast of the current opera being performed at the Royal Opera, ‘Don Giovanni’ which was to be Tooley’s last production and the performance was dedicated to him.
The wonderful Kiri Te Kanawa was Donna Elvira and Thomas Allen the Don.

I mixed the live broadcast and was disappointed that it was still to be in mono sound, even though stereo was soon to be made available on Channel 4. Therefore, I recorded it ‘privately’ in digital stereo, even though I couldn’t even get the production company to actually put a stereo track on their archive videotape.

The only video copy available to me was from a very lo-fi domestic VHS dub and I’ve resynced my digital stereo to that. The National Film Archive does own the C-format broadcast quality videotape, but that also will still be in mono. ‘Kiri Online’ put a really terrible copy of the opera on YouTube with distorted mono sound so I thought I’d post these two short video items and then discuss the sound coverage of an opera like this back at the end of the ’80s.
Here are two excerpts.
Firstly Kiri’s absolutely beautiful singing of the aria ‘Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata’ from Act 2

I don’t think opera ever gets more beautiful than her rendition of that!

The other excerpt is of the incredibly powerful penultimate scene in which Il Commendatore confronts Don Giovanni. I’ll start at the beginning of the Finale that leads up to it:

Thomas Allen is Don Giovanni, Stafford Dean is Leporello, Gwynne Howell is Il Commendatore and Kiri Te Kanawa is Donna Elvira.

The TV Director was John Vernon and we must commend the Limehouse Studio’s cameramen for their totally live coverage and also the outstanding vision mixing throughout.

Doing the sound on a live opera broadcast from the RoH 35 years ago

The production company, Noel Gay teamed up with Limehouse Productions who I’d previously been working for at their Canary Wharf Studios, and we used the Mobile Image Unit 9 OB scanner. This ex-Trilion unit was possibly still the biggest OB scanner in the UK at that time and was equipped with an American Harrison TV3 sound desk, which was a well-specified analogue desk capable of 40 channels. It had no automation of course in 1988, and the desk was renowned for getting rather hot in use.


Things have certainly changed in covering live opera, and now it’s acceptable to give each principal singer a hidden radio mic, which is carefully mixed in to augment the usual stage mics, but in the 80s and 90s those ‘theatre’ techniques of concealing mics in the hair or clothing weren’t considered applicable to opera.
All sound from the stage at this time was therefore using ‘float mics’ along the front-of-stage and also possibly with further directional mics hidden towards the rear of the stage. I had one quick sound rehearsal which was part of a continuous director’s camera rehearsal, so didn’t think I would be able to sneak any mics towards the rear and relied on my front-of-stage mics throughout.
Because of the depth of the stage though, I positioned two more directional Sennheiser 416 mics beside my ‘float mics’ to help with the more distant pickup. In the centre, directly above the prompter’s box, I put an M/S pair of Sennheisers; a cardioid MKH40 and fig-of 8 MKH30. I hoped these would allow me to use them as a standard stereo pair but also close down the Fig-of-8 mic to make it a forward mono mic if needed and I put a backup AKG460 cardioid beside the M/S pair. On the outside, on each side of them came a cardioid Neumann KM84 spaced about halfway across the stage, with the 416s sitting beside them and then another pair of KM84s on the edges. Another 416 was on a stand in the pit, just to pick up Leporello on the far left-of-stage.


You are forced to close mike an opera orchestra like this to avoid mic stands rising above the pit. I went for 4 main omni mics for most of the pickup and because ‘small diaphragm omnis’ weren’t often around in TV sound, I had 4 AKG 414s switched to omni across the front. All the other spot mics were cardioids and were either 414s or KM84s, except for a U-87 on the Double Basses.

Here’s my original rough layout plan: Don Giovanni RoH 23rd July 1988.

In addition, we had Stephen Philips giving an introduction and he had a Tram personal mike with spare and a lip-mic for linking commentary between parts. A commercial break must have been fitted in and an interview with Kiri and Thomas Allen was played off VT.
Opera houses always have an acoustic that is too ‘dead’ for a really orchestral and vocal sound, and I added a Lexicon 224X reverb unit. I brought two reverb sends up via a pair of faders so I could separately control the vocal and orchestral echo send levels.


With only a continuous run-through to judge sound levels, I needed help on the night to know what was ‘coming next’. I therefore insisted a score-reader be booked for me, as I was far to busy moving faders to keep up with the action coming next. This was an ex-colleague from my days at London Weekend TV, Keith Warren and although Keith wasn’t at the rehearsal he could keep up with the score and prompt me on the faders moves to follow the singers around the stage.
The orchestra basically looks after itself once a satisfactory balance is found, although the dynamic range of the orchestra has to be controlled throughout to ‘keep it exciting’ but still hear the singers at all times. So in addition to continually lifting and ducking the stage vocal mics, an orchestra main fader needs to be at hand for controlling the mix levels.


Well judging by the terrible sound on the YouTube VHS copy, alas rather badly, but that’s mainly because it’s such a distorted copy. I certainly needed to give more time to getting the ‘compatibility’ of the mono sound better though. TV was still in the transition stage to stereo with only the BBC experimentally broadcasting it and I had mixed operas in mono before for TV but this was the first time I tried to do an opera in stereo. I spent too much time coping with the stage mics and not enough listening to see how the stereo translated into mono. I learnt my lesson though and never panned the stage mics so fully ‘left and right’ again, as it becomes a little disconcerting in relation to the TV image. I also didn’t add enough ‘reverb’ to give a good mono sound, the stereo sounds so much better because of the added ambience throughout.
In the penultimate scene I’ve shown earlier, you can hear the problem that occurred when Leporello goes to stand beside the on-stage wind band. Relying only on one of the directional 416 mics for his slightly distant vocal unfortunately just picks up too much of the band. I could have sorted this out if there was a re-mix later but in a live situation, I’d have been helped by the hidden radio mics that are now commonplace in large-scale operas coverage.

Stereo TV ……..was a long time coming though!

I wasn’t the only person who regretted that this Don Giovanni wasn’t broadcast in stereo:

From Broadcast magazine 29th July 1988

The BBC had for a few years been putting out concerts on TV with the simultaneous sound on Radio 3 in stereo. You turned down your TV and as long as your TV was between your stereo system it worked well as Sean Day-Lewis’ piece above showed. In fact, the BBC had a ‘NICAM’ stereo TV transmission system in place in London since the 1st Night of the Proms back in 1986. I remember ITV did a ‘simulcast’ using Capital Radio for the stereo, and both ITV Channel 4 finally got their NICAM tests running in February 1989. So my belief that C4 would be doing stereo ‘soon’, was in July 1988 still a bit premature.
Nowadays stereo sound on TV for all music is a ‘given’, even though most sound engineers soon got cold feet about doing any dialogue in stereo so that even a simple ‘2-handed’ interview will only be in mono. Unlike radio where the engineers are still quite often happy to pan the two people ‘left and right’.