Smartphones and the Opera

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.

12 comments

  1. Dylan Tweney

    Thanks for writing about my story — and for your balanced presentation of the comments, pro and con, about it. I was especially happy to hear from opera professionals who have wrestled with the issue of how to connect with a more digital audience.

    One thing about movies: Whether people prefer silence from other members depends on the audience! I have been to screenings of movies where the audience was loud, rambunctious and constantly interacting with what was on the screen. It was fun — of a different kind!

    • Cecily

      Hey Dylan, I’m really glad you commented. You’re absolutely right that some movie audiences like the “audience participation” experience, and some movies (like Rocky Horror) have actually been enhanced by it. Your description probably isn’t too far from what used to go on at opera houses.

      Also, Die Walküre can be tough going even for seasoned opera buffs, let alone for a first-timer. Do you think that giving the running commentary actually helped you engage with it?

      Still…I can’t help but cringe when I see someone texting at the opera. And I’m not even that old.

  2. Definitely the Opera

    Is the darkening of the auditorium something we are willing to get rid of — light up the audience and let it carry on with other business? Firmly against. And a practise doesn’t become desirable just because it’s been done a lot in the past.

    To make opera more populist and popular, a reduction in ticket prices will help much more than allowing live tweeting from the parterre. I say if there are device-addicted people who absolutely must tweet during the performance, they get a designated box where they can light up their little screens and thumb away without irritating people around them or the performers. The backstage tweeting is also an excellent idea. I’d never follow it during a live webcast of a performance I’m actually interested in, but would for something that I’m less into.

    • Cecily

      Happy to see you’ve started a blog, Lydia!

      There’s been some talk at some theatres of having a “tweeting zone” at performances, which I think is an interesting idea. Standing room, perhaps? I also like the idea of live online chats during opera webcasts or radio broadcasts – it’s always interesting finding out how other people are reacting to the opera as it unfolds. Of course, these things interfere with giving one’s full attention to the opera – but, let’s be honest – my attention is usually wandering anyway during, say, the endless Wotan monologues in The Ring Cycle.

      I agree with you that, while opera audiences from earlier times may have been boisterous, I’m not really interested in recreating that atmosphere today.

      And I’m not sure that it’s high ticket prices that are hindering opera’s popularity. It’s much, much more expensive to see the Toronto Maple Leafs or Lady Gaga than La Traviata.

  3. Definitely the Opera

    *adjust the glasses* Well, my unofficial polling among friends and acquaintances indicates that the ticket price is a major deterrent. And you can’t seriously believe that the $$$ factor can be ignored. [The fact that other kind of entertainment is even more expensive is kinda irrelevant.] Moi, I’m thankful for the ‘means of mechanical reproduction’, to be a perfect old fogey about it. Without the DVDs, CDs, records, YouTube, internet audio samples, and (much less now) radio and TV, this opera lover would not be. I tried COC’s rush tickets, but always end up in seats where my neck gets strained. I once watched a Dawn Upshaw thing at the Met from the roped off standing section, and it was a pain. We cheated and switched to the empty seats in the stalls during the intermission.

    I think that in other kinds of music, we are witnessing the rise in the importance of the live performance and the decline of the recording industry and the existing distribution channels. The reverse is happening for a low-income opera lover living in Canada in the year 2010: DVDs and CDs are all the rage. (I wonder what the situation is in other places and income brackets.)

    • Cecily

      Hmm…well, if we’re talking about making opera more popular by lowering the price, I do think it’s worth pointing out that you can’t really draw a straight line from price to popularity. Some very popular things are expensive, some unpopular things are dirt cheap. And, there’s a certain segment of the audience that goes to the opera because it carries the aura of affluence (as much as we might wish otherwise). And, I’ve been a cheap-seater all my life and rarely sit closer than the 5th ring, so perhaps that colors the way I think about price.

      I do agree with you that the relationship between the recording vs. the live performance is quite a bit different from pop music. While singers really have to build their chops live, most of the world will never get a chance to hear them, since the live opera scene is concentrated in a small handful of cities (at least in North America).

  4. Definitely the Opera

    Ah, the fellow 5th ringer, I salute you.

    Maybe we just need cleverer ushers who will turn a blind eye to 5th ringers moving to the empty seats in the parterre as the light begins to dim. We can call them Figaro-ushers.

  5. Definitely the Opera

    Been thinking about this again yesterday, as I listened to Parsival on CD for the first time. I’d probably check Twitter for audience tweets during Wagner, but that’s because by rule I don’t go batty for his work.

    It was better to read the accounts of the Vancouver Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies on Twitter than watch the televised event itself… But again, it’s because it was a cheesy spectacle calling for a bitchy running commentary.

    Hmmm… this will remain an important topic, what the audiences can do during an opera performance.

  6. Definitely the Opera

    Or the bloody latecomers.

    Recently went to The Element Choir concert in a smallish church — the improv choir led by Christine Duncan — and had to endure 40 min worth of arrivals on the ‘Standard Hipster Time’. And that’s 40 min after the start of the concert.

    Then the iPhones started working and the popping in and out of the pews began. aaaaaggghhhh

    • Cecily

      Say what? There’s a thingy on the sidebar there that’s supposed to let you sign up for an email subscription. Are you getting an error message?