Sports, News, Porno, and... Opera?


RCA Hawkeye

RCA Hawkeye

Ampex HS-100

Ampex HS-100

Electronic slow motion was invented for sports video. Tapeless camcorders were created for TV news. Pornography made streaming video successful.  But something else that seems to drive media-technology innovation is opera.  Really.  Opera.

The European Digital Cinema Forum’s 2008 EDCF Guide to Alternative Content for Digital Cinema begins with a chapter on opera because opera happens to be the number-one form of alternative (non-movie) content worldwide, beating out rock concerts, sports, and political events. In many countries, a single opera showing is enough to out-earn a weekend’s worth of continuous movie showings to finish in the top-10 box-office grosses.

The Metropolitan Opera received an Engineering Emmy Award in January and a Peabody Award in May for their technological contributions to television.  Their first global HD cinema transmission was in 2006, but their first multi-city live cinema transmission was in 1952, and The Los Angeles Times noted then that the Orpheum theater there had been equipped with a stereophonic sound system for the occasion.

Carmen 1 small

Berlin small

opera in stereo 1925...

Theatrophone_-_Clement_Ader_1881

...and 1881

Although FM stereo wouldn’t be introduced until the following decade, 1952 wasn’t opera’s first stereo sound.  A 1925 Radio News article described the Berlin Opera’s stereo broadcasts, and the Paris Opera’s first stereo transmissions (by wire) were in 1881!

Why would they even consider such a thing?  Perhaps it’s because the first electronic-media entertainment service was actually opera via telephone lines.  It began in Switzerland in 1878 and spread around the world.  In 1930, there were more than 91,000 paying subscribers in the city of Budapest, alone.

More interested in the moving-image media?  The first color-TV broadcast is sometimes said to have been the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day in 1954, but NBC broadcast the opera Carmen in color the previous year.  NBC Television had its own opera company for 16 years, and ABC and CBS (among others worldwide) also commissioned operas for network television broadcast.  BBC television’s first commission of an opera was in 1938, a year before television was supposedly introduced at the New York World’s Fair; and they had been televising operas since 1936.

Some say the first sound movie was The Jazz Singer in 1927, using the Vitaphone process.  Vitaphone was located in the Manhattan Opera House.  It was a good process and a good movie, but a sound movie of the complete opera Faust had been released in Britain in 1907, and sound movies of opera arias were seen and heard in 1900 in Paris.

Incidentally, the first movie score was written by opera composer Camille Saint-Saens in 1908.  In 1914, 24 years before Erich Korngold won an Oscar for the score of 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, he completed his first two operas.   Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite movie-score writer, Bernard Herrmann, wrote an opera scene for Citizen Kane and later composed an opera based on Wuthering Heights.

In 1896, a movie of a bullfight was used as a scenic element for the opera Carmen in a production in Elizabeth, NJ.  Ten years earlier the concept of using movies as opera backgrounds was patented by Louis Le Prince.  Clips from his experiments are the oldest known existing movie sequences.  And the Hamburg Opera had already been using projected backgrounds by 1726 (and perhaps as early as 1678).

1849 arc light

1849 electric light

That projection didn’t use electric light, of course, not that electricity was needed for lighting.  Specifications for a mechanical dimming system for candle-based opera lighting were published in 1638.   Stockholm’s Drottningholm Opera House still uses an 18th-century lighting-control system, updated recently to deliver light via fiber optics to the mechanically controlled candle reflectors.  But it’s worth noting that the Paris Opera used an electric-light effect in Le Prophete in 1849, 30 years before Edison’s light bulb.

Meucci_foglietto

opera stagehand Meucci

Also in 1849, Italian-born Antonio Meucci, Havana Opera’s technical director, began his work on the transmission of sound over electrical wiring.  In 2005, Italy issued a postage stamp honoring him as the inventor of the telephone.

Location recording, remote broadcasts, image intensifiers, contrast compression, diplexed audio, and live subtitling are just some of the other media technologies pioneered for opera.  3-D and interactivity have already found their way into opera.  And an opera project has already used the technical facilities of the European Center for Nuclear Research, home of the giant supercollider featured in Angels & Demons. Yes, opera.


Tags: Berlin, Bernard Herrmann, Camille Saint-Saens, Carmen, Cinema, EDCF, Erich Korngold, Hamburg, history, media, Metropolitan Opera, Opera, Stereo,

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