Tour Profile: Sarah BrightmanSongstress' Many Musical Worlds Traverse the Stage 4/01/2004 7:00 AM Eastern
Few artists can claim the international success of Sarah Brightman— and fewer still have achieved it as she has — in threemajor genres of music. She began her career in the late '70s (whilestill in her teens) as a pop singer. Only a few years later, she wascast in the London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats,leading to the pair's much-publicized romance, marriage and creativepartnership, and the beginning of Brightman's ascent to the pinnacle ofthe musical theater world. While helping sell out stages in London'sWest End, she also established herself as a classical singer, makingthe Top 10 in the UK with “Pie Jesu” and appearing onstagewith Plácido Domingo. In the mid-'80s, Webber wrote the part ofChristine in Phantom of the Opera specifically for Brightman,building the music around her unusual ability to handle both classicaland contemporary pop styles.
In the beginning of the '90s, her relationship with Webber ended andBrightman moved on to a solo career. Her albums from that time forwardbrought in all three of her musical influences: She lent her ethereal,three-octave soprano to works by Beethoven and Dvorák, as well assongs by Kansas and trip-hoppers Hooverphonic, and continued to performworks by musical theater composers. Her latest, Harem, retainsthis eclecticism, adding Middle Eastern flavors to the mix. Its tracksfeature a melange of classical orchestral arrangements, dance beats andMiddle Eastern sounds and musicians, including Israel's Ofra Hazra andIraqi vocalist Kazem Al Saher. Reworkings of “What a WonderfulWorld” and “Stranger in Paradise” rub shoulders witha tune by Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman and songs inspired by Borodinand Puccini.
As to be expected from the former Phantom star, there is noshortage of theatrics on the Harem tour, which played inlarge-capacity venues in North America until March, and now continuesin Europe and Asia until the middle of the summer. Mix caught up withthe tour at New York City's Madison Square Garden; photos taken at theRosemont, Ill., Allstate Arena. “The stage is shaped like acrescent, and there's a 20-meter catwalk that comes down the center ofthe auditorium to a star-shaped B-stage,” says Colin Boland,Brightman's front-of-house engineer of nine years. “There arealso [hydraulic] riser lifts built within the stage so musicians andthe piano appear magically onstage.” In addition, there is aFoley flying system that allows Brightman to soar into the air oncertain numbers.
With a show containing such a wide range of musical styles —often one right after the other, sometimes blended together in a singlenumber — you need to have a board that can change musical gearsquickly. “The show runs from pure dance music through to operaticarias to West End musical-type stuff; it goes the whole way,”says Boland. To accomplish the job, he uses a Yamaha PM-1D console, aboard he's stuck with on six or seven tours with Brightman during thepast two years. Its total programmability allows Boland to dispensewith outboard effects on all instruments and makes it perfect forBrightman's diverse set. “Aside from Sarah's vocals, everythingis internal on the board. I've been able to have a totally programmablecompressor, gate and EQ for every song, for every instrument,”says Boland. “It's like having a whole new console or effectsracks for every song.” This allows him to keep his attention ondynamic differences, so that when Brightman switches genres —from pop, say, to operatic belting — the volume stays even.
Boland and Andreas Linde-Buchner, Brightman's monitor engineer, arehandling a fairly large group onstage. In addition to the singer and asizable band (two keyboardists, two guitarists, a bass player, drummerand two percussionists), there are a group of backing vocalists and a10-person string section. Boland mikes the string players individuallywith DPA 4060s. Most of the guitars are taken in-line, although oneguitarist who plays mandolin, sitar, electric and acoustic guitars anda keyboard, is run through a Yamaha 03D board before giving theengineers two outputs. The drum set is miked with a Shure SM91 on thekick, an SM57 on the snares, a 451 on the hi-hat, SM98s on the toms andAKG 414s as overheads. In addition, an electronic V-drum system goes indirect.
For Middle Eastern percussionist Aviv Barak, Boland uses acombination of mics. “He's playing a variety of instruments, jarsand things like that. We cover him with three 414s, and he also has aSennheiser radio ME-102 [clip] because he moves about a bit,”Boland says. The other percussionist has a much larger setup: congas,bongos, djembes, timpanis, timbale, a “big warrior drum,”and a table of chimes, cymbals and bells. Besides two 414 overheads,the player has “two DPA 4060s strapped to his hands as hand mics,so as he moves around his percussion section, he's always there. Itmeans that we can cut down the number of mics we need on hissetup.” Boland does, however, mike the timpani with Sennheiser441s and puts SM57s on the djembe and war drum.
Brightman's main vocal microphone is a handheld Sennheiser SKM-5000with a Neumann capsule. “The SKM-5000 is the mostincredible-sounding radio mic I've ever come across. It just captureseverything,” Boland says. Brightman also uses a Neumann KM 140with an extension tube that the company custom-built for her. Allvocals go through Neve 9098 EQs chained with a BSS 901 compressor and aLexicon 480 reverb, and then grouped using a Focusrite Producer Pack.The 901 filters out her frequent sibilance, and the Focusrite helps tocontrol the volume spikes when Brightman launches into her operaticmaterial.
Apart from four SSE speakers onstage for the benefit of the tour'sdancers, all monitoring is done with in-ear systems. Brightman uses aSennheiser Evolution 300 system. Most of the musicians either use thesame or bring their own in-ears. “On the tours before, we hadSarah on wedges, and there was always a balance that had to be keptbetween what she hears from the speakers and what she hears from theroom,” Linde-Buchner says. “On this tour, she has in-ears,which is, of course, a completely different way of hearing. She can'thear the room present anymore.” As a result, he adds reverb,though very carefully. “It's comparable to if you mix a rock bandthat was on wedges before and now they're on in-ears. If something goeswrong in the mix, if you're on wedges, you go and meter the side andyou're fine because you're not in that direct sound beam anymore. Ifyou've got in-ears, you carry it with you everywhere you go —there's no escape!”
Like Boland, Linde-Buchner mixes on a PM-1D and uses the console'sonboard effects rather than outboard gear. He stays primarily withlarge room reverb settings, although none are necessary for the stringplayers — their mics pick up enough ambience. “Stringplayers don't like putting headphones onto their ears anyway,” hesays, “so if I add some effects on it, I think they won't like itat all.”
Though monitoring is fairly straightforward thanks to the console,Linde-Buchner finds one aspect of his setup unusual: “I'm sittingunderneath the stage and don't have any eye contact with Sarah,”he says. “So what we're doing is using cameras so I can seeseveral looks on her face or eye winks so I know that there is aproblem or a need.”
Brightman's sound crew carries a Nexo GeoT P.A. system provided bySSE Hire. The main system comprises 11 GeoT 4805s (side hangs) andthree GeoT 2815s, with four Nexo CD18 subwoofers behind per side. Thereare six additional 4805s per side on deck and four Nexo PS8 speakersare used as front-fills; the entire system is flown. The P.A. ispowered by Camco Vortex 6 amplifiers and controlled with Nexo NX241processors.
Boland has high praise for the system. “It hasphase-cancellation speakers on the back and the back projection to thestage is incredible. You can actually take a condenser mic and throwyour fader up to 10 and not worry about it. And also, [Sarah] can walkout onto the B-stage — 20 meters into the audience — withher microphone and we have absolutely no problem. And the size of thesystem is incredibly tiny.”
Ultimately, Boland finds that with an artist whose music ranges aswidely as Brightman's does, the best thing he can do is be flexible.“The general approach I feel is a very ‘Zen’one,” he says. “You basically deal with what's put at you.Having the programmable board means you can actually deal witheverything song by song and you don't have to have an overallapproach.”
Gaby Alter is a freelance writer, songwriter and musical composerbased in Brooklyn, N.Y.