Wandering the web the other day I came across an interesting little controversy about a young lady called Laura Bretan. Miss Bretan, who is now 14, is an American of Romanian extraction who currently lives in Chicago. She sings very well. She is eligible, it seems, for both Romania’s Got Talent and America’s Got Talent. She entered both, winning in Romania and reaching the finals in America. Video of the young lady in action here:


Normally, I suppose, connoisseurs of serious music do not watch talent shows of this kind. Miss Bretan, though, seems to have attracted some interest by describing herself as an “opera singer”, and performing on her first appearance Puccini’s aria Nessu Dorme, albeit in a shortened version.  There ensued a critical article in one of the on-line magazines where people who take these matters extremely seriously hang out. The writer thought Miss Bretan had a deficient technique, was “straining” to get effects which required an adult voice, and might ruin her voice if not subjected to some serious training. This provoked a wide variety of responses. Some people drew unkind conclusions from the fact that the critical author was a well-known voice coach. There was much technical dispute about the finer points of adult and adolescent vocal chords.

Various names were bandied about as examples of young gals (this is apparently not a problem for boys) who had burst onto the scene with a lovely voice but had not in fact become opera singers of any consequence, or at all. Some of the stuffier correspondents complained that in the original opera Nessu Dorme is sung by a man, hardly an impressive point in the context of America’s Got Talent, and complained that Miss Bretan did not pronounce Italian well. Sympathetic but still concerned experts agreed that perhaps this kind of singing was not an ideal preparation for a life on the opera stage. The kinder ones conceded that a quick burst on television was unlikely to do any harm in the long run.

Clearly what really bothered some of these people, and one of them eventually made this point, was that singing one song, however well, does not make you an “opera singer”. Opera singers have to keep it up for two hours. They have to produce a sound which can compete with the output of a small orchestra and fill an auditorium without using a microphone. It is a tough career which is lavishly rewarding only for a lucky few . There are probably easier ways of becoming rich and famous, and doing well on television talent shows is one of them. Watching this happen to a 14-year-old girl is probably a painful experience.

Performance of Barber of Seville
A performance of the opera Barber of Seville. Photo: Wikicommons.

But opera singers are not the only people who are facing this sort of competition. There is a flourishing industry of kiddies who sing like adults. They are particularly conspicuous on TV talent shows, where an age in single digits is perfectly acceptable. Most of them stick to something more in the pop line than opera. The one thing they all have in common is that they use a microphone.  And this, I fear, is what frightens the “real” singers who have practised for years to produce a highly trained and professional voice. You don’t need to do that any more. Your sound man can fix the volume, and much else besides.

This is what happened to the guitar, and turned it into a different instrument. Andres Segovia played classical music on the guitar, and Jimi Hendrix did something completely different on its electric descendant. Really the name is now the only thing they have in common. The Irish frame drum which I play for fun used to be beaten with a substantial piece of wood. The fashion now among celebrated players is to tickle it with something very thin and light. The wooden bit at the back of violin bows is often recycled for this purpose.

Jimi hendrix
Axeman Jimi Hendrix. Photo: Wikicommons.

Without amplification, this would produce the sound of two flies dancing on a newspaper. With a microphone stuck in the back of the drum the effect is, I must admit, very interesting and exciting. But quite different. Well I suppose with instruments this is not something to worry about. Those who wish to do without the sound man’s artful aid can still play the “unplugged” version. Opera also will no doubt survive, if only because in many countries it is lavishly subsidised. What seems to be in danger of disappearing altogether is the unassisted spoken voice.

One of the things about my school career which would now seem odd is that I never encountered a microphone. Teachers were expected to address their classes without artificial aid of any kind. The principal would address the whole school in the gym or school hall, similarly without assistance. Debates were conducted in a similarly unelectric way. I think the first time I had anything to do with a microphone was during a brief appearance on the BBC in connection with a protest against the Cuba missile crisis. At that time I was in Form 6. University lecturers were similarly catered for, or rather not catered for. A few people who lectured in thoroughly unsuitable rooms (mediaeval dining halls) used mics, with disappointing results. Bad acoustics are bad acoustics. But generally if you wanted to address a crowd you were expected to do so with a clarity and volume which made your words intelligible in their raw state, as it were.

Pui Ching Primary School
Using a microphone at Pui Ching Primary School. Photo: GovHK.

And this is the way it had always been. We may take with a pinch of salt the idea of a sermon on a mountain top, but there are reliable reports of people addressing quite large crowds long before microphones were invented. By the 19th century it was apparently customary in really large occasions to have “repeaters”, people who stood at a distance from the speaker and bellowed out his words so that people out of earshot of the original could still get the message. I have always wondered how this worked. Did the speaker have to pause after each sentence for the repeaters to pass on his message? Or did the repeaters operate in pairs, with one listening while the other yelled? Clearly though they were not used indoors, even in cavernous spaces like the Royal Albert Hall or Westminster Abbey. The ability to speak clearly to large numbers was not an exotic skill found only in a few lucky individuals with lungs of brass. Your local priest preached without amplification, and the local amateur who read the lesson also had no help.

Well we have, as they say, changed all that. In modern Hong Kong it is an almost universal expectation that anyone addressing a group will be offered a mic, and he or she will usually accept and use it. Every classroom has a sound system, even if the classroom is so small it is no bigger than my living room.  The teacher will be offered a choice – handheld with cable, handheld but wireless, or a clip-on. Being able to speak is no longer a requirement. More ominously, as the equipment is there, the students expect to use it as well. So they get no practice in naked public speaking.

Plane landing at Kai Tak Airport.

Some of this can be put down to higher levels of noise in the environment generally. My university used to be more or less under the flightpath to Kai Tak. The air conditioning competes with the speakers’ efforts and sometimes noises from outside seep in as well. Using a microphone in some special situations is perfectly acceptable. Using it all the time has a cost. If the sound is effortlessly overwhelming the students will treat it rather as they treat television at home – as a noise perfectly compatible with the audience chatting among itself. I am quite happy to have a bit of background muttering in my classes, because it consists mostly of people who didn’t understand something asking what the hell he is talking about and other people telling them in Cantonese. But if you turn yourself into a radio then you are asking for a multi-tasking audience. We all know we can do something else while listening to the radio.

The effect is exacerbated if you succumb to the other modern compulsion and use Powerpoint. The problem with Powerpoint is that the students then look at the screen… and the speaker tends to as well. Combined with electric sound this means there is no ear contact and no eye contact. In consequence, I fear, there is probably not much communication. A.J.P. Taylor used to lecture without notes. This is a good trick if you can manage it but probably not worth losing a lot of sleep over. I do though recommend learning how to lecture without a microphone. It is not necessary to be very loud. In fact speaking softly is one of the more subtle ways of persuading your audience to shut up.

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.