All Time Coloratura

Smartphones and the Opera

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on July 30, 2010
Twitter Fail Whale

Twitter Fail?

I will soon be the owner of a shiny new smartphone, from which I will be able to (but will most likely refrain from) broadcasting various details of my life and activities. Announcing one’s activities, no matter what they might be, is growing more commonplace, and the opera is no exception. Take, for example, this piece in Wired describing the author Dylan Tweney’s attempt to live-tweet a performance of Die Walküre (flagrantly ignoring the pre-performance request that all electronic devices be turned off).

You might think that Twitter and opera (not the browser) don’t work together. On the one hand, you’ve got epically long, rich visual and auditory feasts for the senses that require significant education to appreciate. On the other, you’ve got a text-only medium that restricts you to 140 characters, is free to use, and currently reaches more than 30 million people, who use it to broadcast such prosaic items as what they’re wearing, whether its raining or if Ronaldhino has just scored a goal.

On top of that, opera is, well, old. I think the medium was last popular in about 1895, whereas Twitter is very much a child of the 21st century’s always-on, internet-saturated lifestyle.

But if you treat opera as an event, it sort of makes sense to integrate it with Twitter. After all, people have live-tweeted Steve Jobs keynotes, ballgames, breaking news events and even births. Twitter is very well-suited to giving people a glimpse of something as it happens, adding a communal (and even global) dimension to real-time events. So why not opera?

I have mixed feelings about this. It drives me nuts when I can see someone’s glowing smartphone screen from three rows away. If you’re really that bored, stay home, I usually think. And it’s been a while since I’ve attended a performance where at least one cell phone didn’t go off (followed by panicked attempts to silence it). The substance of Dylan Tweney’s tweets doesn’t do a whole lot to argue his case: he mostly tweeted plot details, which don’t really benefit from a live account (imagine live-tweeting the contents of a book). On the other hand, I think a new breed of discourse is emerging on twitter, and opera companies ignore it at their peril. Opera-listening can be enhanced by communal experience, whether it’s an appreciative nod to the friend sitting next to you after a particularly well-executed high note, or chatting with a fellow opera-lover while listening to a recording or watching a DVD. Vancouver Opera has found a way to live-tweet performances in an innovative and non-disruptive way: tweeting during the performance from backstage (here’s VO’s OperaNinja account).

Here’s a sampling of the comments, positive and negative, from the Wired story:

Dude, if you decide to be in a place where electronic devices are not permitted, then it is your responsibility to turn them off or, even better, leave them at home. There’s more to life than texting and tweeting, even if you write for Wired. You wrote an entire article detailing your own obnoxious behavior.

*

congratulation…you’re a cultural surrogate. an electronic replacement for hearing, seeing and thinking.
you also an alchemist, since you managed to transmute a complex cultural experience into some banal, pointless observations. you’re also a broadcaster, since you had the technology to transmit your observations to others. you’re a new world man…and i pity you

*

Allright, so your behavior (tweeting at the opera) seems to have ticked some folks off. Probably would have ticked me off a few years ago too, as folks around you paid a lot of money for their tickets…but I digress. I’m actually a big fan of using this medium in order to bring in a new audience to opera. We have to reach people where they are, and where they are is on twitter and facebook. Folks can either admonish you for your behavior, or thank you for spreading the word. As an opera singer myself, and as the director of a burgeoning regional company that embraces social media and technology, I feel that we have to find a middle-ground. I think we’ll reserve our back-row for twitter-heads this coming season. I, for one, would much rather see the word get out (in a way that doesn’t disturb others) than see the art-form that I love, die a slow and painful death as people lose interest.

*

I am a composer of operas, and a professor of music as well: one of my students from my spring course on opera forwarded your tweet about the Wagner performance — and I am still laughing so hard, it is almost impossible to type this….Power to you! The art form has a long and complex history, which most genuine opera lovers should know by now: for instance, Italian opera houses (until Napoleon) had exclusive legal gambling rights (which I assume helped to subsidize the costs); boxes were equipped with mirrors, so one could play cards or chess without missing too much of the action; food was served (of course, so no one would leave in your calorie-deprived condition). And so forth. Opera now is very little like opera as it has historically been– and, at best, tries to duplicate the conditions that prevaiied ca.1895. But what about opera in 1675? or 1750? Does anyone actually know the totally wacky stuff that used to go on, routinely? Does anyone read Casanova’s memoirs about castrati — and women posing as castrati, who (he claims) he can tell by intuition? As an ardent admirer and current practitioner of the medium, I support wholeheartedly any and all efforts to bring it back to the lively, low-brow, FUN genre it has been over the ages. Which means opera is not, and cannot ever be, outdated.

This last comment appeals to history – in the past, opera audiences didn’t listen in silence, but rather chatted, ate, and even gambled during the show. The trouble with this kind of argument is – do we really want to return to those days? Even at the movies, still for the most part a populist entertainment, people generally prefer silence and attention from the other members of the audience. The benefits of this are obvious. While increased conversation about opera must always be a good thing, it’s also valuable to retain some experiences to which we are prepared to give our full attention.

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