It's difficult to know if the invention of opera glasses in the 19th century forced opera singers to change their looks or acting. Observing something differently can often alter it. Last week, new viewing technologies finally caught up with opera, altering its form, if not its substance.
Like many stodgy cultural institutions, Western opera has been a reluctant entrant into the Digital Age. Its 400 years of history and a fine balance of song, scenic spectacle, dance, costume, and music has made it more of a museum piece to be preserved than improved. Just getting English subtitles projected at performances was seen as a revolution.
But a visionary new general manager at New York City's Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb, showed last week how this well-worn art form can be altered to accommodate new technologies. For anyone whose life has been changed by a cellphone, the Web, an iPod, or a flat-screen TV, you can relate.
The Met launched a series of six different operas to be broadcast live via satellite into dozens of commercial movie theaters equipped with large, high-definition screens. For about $18 a ticket, thousands of people in the US, Canada, Britain, Denmark, and Japan watched the opening opera, a much-altered production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," with as much realism and far less expense than if they had gone to the Met – and with the freedom to eat popcorn.
In order to play to high-definition's strength of revealing intimate details, and to cater to a younger, less opera-savvy audience in these Hollywood-style multiplexes, the production was made "family friendly." It was shortened by more than half. Its stage animals were designed by Julie Taymor, creator of Broadway's "The Lion King" musical. And 10 cameras were used.
The original German of "The Magic Flute" was translated into English. The sad character Papageno, for instance, pines for a girlfriend and sings: "Is my face just one big puddle? Aren't I cute enough to cuddle?"
This isn't your grandfather's opera, just as many professional sports aren't exactly what they were before TV, or music was before MTV and the iPod, or museums were before audio-guides, or (coming soon) the news business might be once the Internet (and its bloggers, youtube.com, Google, etc.) becomes the medium of choice for all.
Classical music, too, is getting a shake-up with a hand-held gadget that allows symphonygoers to hear commentary and watch close-ups of the musicians.
Many of the Met's august troupe of singers are also now blogging or have appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman. Last fall, performances began to be broadcast over satellite radio and the Internet.
Both technology and, in many cases, smaller audiences, are driving innovation in the arts. Taking a show to where people are, both physically and mentally, is becoming the norm. The more elitist cultural institutions may be slow to innovate, but the cobwebs are falling fast. The Met's workers' union had to adjust and many longtime patrons may not like the changes in traditional productions. But new communication technologies have broad-ened audiences in many cultural fields – a necessity for the Met, which has seen ticket sales drop since 2001.
New ways to view opera will freshen it up, helping to keep it around for another 400 years.