Q&A: Sébastien Chonion12:00, 16th May 2018
The recording producer and engineer speaks to Katy Wright
Tell me about your role.
A classical music recording producer has a leading role in overseeing both the artistic and sonic aspects of a recording, collaborating closely with the recorded musicians, soloist(s) or conductor on one side, and with the recording engineer and team on the other. It is vital to have a highly developed sense of musicianship guided by a good pair of ears, good communication and language skills, and a thorough knowledge of the music repertoire. Key qualities are passion, devotion, patience and competitiveness, given the tough economic environment.
Can you talk me through the process of producing a recording?
There are two types of recording situations for releases: live recordings/broadcasts and studio recordings. Both need careful preparation and planning, not least to study the score, which is what a producer constantly refers to during the whole process of recording and post-production. In some cases, budget can be a determining factor on how to record; for instance, operas that involve large forces are rarely produced in studio nowadays.
When it comes to live recordings, it’s important to capture the natural acoustic of the venue. The choice of microphones and how instruments/soloists are placed is crucial to reproduce a balanced ensemble. Usually a live recording release is made out of two or three live performances and, if needed, some patching to correct tricky passages. This leaves me in a more passive role during the recording, but with any luck I will have enough material to edit a release.
In the studio, the part of the producer becomes more active as the exchange between musician and producer is constant. The producer almost coaches or guides the artist through the recording session, as a film director would do with actors.
Post-production starts with the editing process. With today’s technical possibilities, editing a recording has become an art form! However, micro-editing can harm the musicality; one wants to be careful and achieve perfection but has to avoid the recording becoming sterile. After the artist gives feedback and the last amendments are incorporated, we move on to the final stage of mixing and mastering, where the balance of all recorded sources is finely tuned for best musical and sonic results. The final master is then sent back to the label.
How did you get into this line of work?
I studied music and recording at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. Shortly after graduating, I started to work on various broadcasts in France and Germany. One day I met John Barnes, who picked me to take over from his decades of recording work at Glyndebourne Opera to lead the new in-house CD label. In recent years, the Royal Opera House has become my new operatic family.
I love to work behind the scenes and at the same time be part of a great musical event within a team of passionate colleagues. I feel incredibly lucky to work with outstanding singers, conductors, composers, instrumentalists and music industry peers.
What are the most challenging aspects of your job, and what do you enjoy the most?
The challenge (and the beauty) is that no project is the same. Every recording requires me to build relationships with new musicians (and often also a new recording team) in no time. A recording producer is the first person who listens, evaluates and gives feedback on the recorded music in a session and we need to be able to listen with the musicians’ ears, and make decisions with and for them. It’s exciting, of course, but there is no time or space for approximation.
What projects have you been working on?
I have just returned from Singapore, where I recorded Melvyn Tan’s second album for Onyx. I have recently finished working on a DVD of Brett Dean’s Hamlet (premiered by Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra), which will be released imminently on Opus Arte; a recording of Bach’s B minor Mass performed by William Christie and les Arts Florissants for Harmonia Mundi; and my first recording for Hyperion with harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. I’m returning to the Royal Opera House for the live cinema relay of the new production of Swan Lake in June and, having recorded Prokofiev’s first five piano sonatas with my wife, pianist Alexandra Silocea, for Avie Records, the recording of the remaining five sonatas is in motion.