Opera: The Early Adopter Of The Media World

Nov 5, 2011
Originally published on November 7, 2011 5:23 pm

The Metropolitan Opera recently opened a new production of Siegfried, the third of the four operas in Wagner's Ring Cycle — in 3-D. You won't need special glasses to see the actors on stage. Instead, the background sets 3-D projections of forests and other illusions.

It turns out that having 3-D sets in a live show is just the latest tech-savvy leap for the genre. Historian Mark Schubin lectures about opera's place on the cutting edge of technology. He says opera theaters got the jump on the first telephone patent, Edison's light bulb, commercial radios and more.

"The first radio transmission of a complete opera was in 1910," Schubin tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Audie Cornish. "That was 10 years before what people consider the first radio station."

Even before that, Schubin says, people listened to opera at home via telephone lines, using headphones and, in some cases, stereo sound. The cooperation between opera and phone companies began in New York with a former opera impresario named Edward Fry.

"In his later life, [he] was stuck in bed, so he had telephone lines installed to the local opera house," Schubin says. "They came to his house, and he could hold up the telephone receiver and listen to the opera. And that was in 1880."

Schubin says it wasn't long before the service was commercialized. Other cities created their own models: In Paris, for example, you could use public coin-operated machines to listen to a few minutes of opera at a time, or use a home service that was pay-per-event. In Budapest, announcers began reading daily headlines over the phone lines before the start of the opera, giving rise to the first newscasts. Schubin argues that even movies and television have roots in opera.

"It doesn't matter who you want to pick as the inventor of movies," he says. "If you pick Thomas Edison, his first filing with the U.S. Patent Office said that the purpose of movies was for opera. If you prefer the inventor Louis Le Prince, he filed a patent for the adaptation of animated pictures to operatic scenes. If you prefer Charles Francis Jenkins, he said that one of the things you could do with television, in his description of the first television set in 1925, was the delivery of opera."

Opera's culture of innovation continues today, as the Metropolitan Opera takes to the 3-D frontier. Schubin says the projection system used for Siegfried incorporates some of the most advanced technology available.

"There are people that are working in rock concerts, who work in all sorts of other levels of computer graphics and projection," Schubin says, "who are calling the people at the Met every day and saying, 'What did you do today?' It's just so amazing how they're pushing the limits."

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Wagner's Ring Cycle has been a staple of opera repertoire for a nearly century and a half. This is a recording from The Metropolitan Opera a few years ago.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing in foreign language)

CORNISH: This season, the company is giving the work a 21st century makeover with a new production of "Siegfried," the third opera in the cycle. The staging features 3-D-like special effects; computerized projections that create spooky optical illusions of forests alive with creeping, flying fauna. But it turns out these special effects are just the latest technological leap in the opera house.

Engineer, opera buff and media historian Mark Schubin has traced these advances, going back to the 19th century, and joins me now from our New York bureau.

Mark Schubin, welcome to the program.

MARK SCHUBIN: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: And, of course, you are also and Emmy Award-winning engineer for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. So maybe you can explain to me how exactly is a live performance - how does that involve 3-D?


CORNISH: Is that a misnomer?

SCHUBIN: Well, in this case, 3-D probably is a misnomer. But I should point out that there have been operas that were performed live that did have true 3-D, with the audience wearing glasses. You're familiar with those pictures of movie audiences all wearing their 3-D glasses. Well, there's a picture that shows an audience that looks a little classier than a movie audience. And that was actually taken at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during the performance of "Monsters of Grace," which was a Philip Glass opera that had a true three-dimensional backdrop.

CORNISH: That's just one example of a sort of a modern media innovation. And I'm saying modern by opera standards. Can you list may be two or three others, just straight examples of things that opera tried out before they became widespread or, in some cases, before they were technically invented?

SCHUBIN: Sure. Well, we're listening to radio right now. The first radio transmission of the complete opera was in 1910. That's 10 years before what some people consider the first radio station. Even before that, there were people who were listening to opera at how via telephone lines, using headphones and, in some cases, in stereo sound.


SCHUBIN: It all began with an invalid in New York; a guy by the name of Edward Fry who had been an opera impresario, and in later life was stuck in bed. So he had telephone lines installed to the local opera house - the Academy of Music. And they came to his house, and he could hold him up the telephone receiver and listen to the opera. And that was in 1880.


CORNISH: You also say at one point that I guess the idea of pay monthly service essentially started with opera?

SCHUBIN: That's correct. There was pay cable beginning in 1885 for opera. It was in Lisbon. That one was an annual fee; you paid the equivalent of about $1,800 today to get the entire opera season of 90 operas. There was also stereo transmission in Paris. And you could go to a train station or a hotel lobby, put in your coin and listen to three minutes of opera. And there was a home service that had an annual fee for the lines and then it was pay per event.


SCHUBIN: But there was another service that started in Budapest in 1893 and that was a monthly subscription service. And for that one, the guy knew that the opera were going to start at 8 PM and he had these lines going to the homes, and he figured, hmm, how can I maximize the use of these lines? And so he invented something that your listeners are very familiar with, the newscast. And the first newscast was in 1893, created to use the lines that were put in for the delivery of opera.

CORNISH: Newscast, meaning they actually delivered a little bit of news before the show? Or, you mean the act of the broadcasting?

SCHUBIN: No, he actually had people that he called stentors and they would read the news into the microphone. They would do it before the opera entering information. It's the progenitor of NPR, if you will.


CORNISH: And I'm going to start using stentors, ‘cause that is an awesome name for what we do.


CORNISH: We have a clip from a 1908 film. And this is the voice, at least, of the opera singer Enrico Caruso.


CORNISH: Mark Schubin, what can you tell us about this film?

SCHUBIN: Well, that's sort of the origin of the Milli Vanilli scandal...


SCHUBIN: It's the beginning of lip-synching...

CORNISH: So it's Caruso's voice but we're not looking at him.

SCHUBIN: It's Caruso's voice. Right, it was a manufacturer of a movie sound system, this one was called the Cinephone. And he wanted to promote his sound system so he hired a actor in the lip-sync to Caruso.


CORNISH: How do you think that opera is influencing the modern media world in this century?

SCHUBIN: Well, you mentioned that the beginning of this so-called 3-D projection system that's being used in "Siegfried," it's some of the most advanced technology imaginable. And there are people who work on rock concerts, who work in all sorts of other levels of computer graphics and projection, who are calling people at the Met every day and say, ooh, what did you do today, what would you do today, because it's just so amazing how they are pushing the limits.

CORNISH: Mark Schubin, he's an Emmy Award-winning engineer with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He joined us from our New York bureau.

Mark Schubin, thank you for talking with us.

SCHUBIN: My pleasure, Thank you.

CORNISH: You can see video of the new 3-D production of "Siegfried" from the Metropolitan opera at NPRMusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.