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King Luís I: Opera Broadcast Pioneer

November 19, 2013

Luís I, first opera-transmission royal I fully expected objections and arguments in tracing the mid-19th century antecedents of opera broadcasts, but one response surprised me.

The king of broadcast history, Mark Schubin, wrote to say that the King of Portugal's use of telephone ("théatrophone," to be exact) to listen to opera misled me to say "the first [commercial opera-delivery service] involving payment to the opera company was in Lisbon in 1884." Make that 1885, Schubin said.

I responded triumphantly with Wikipedia:

In 1884, the King Luís I of Portugal decided to use the system, when he could not attend an opera in person. The director of the Edison Gower Bell Company, who was responsible for this théatrophone installation was later awarded the Military Order of Christ [funded in 1319].

There you go, Military Order of Christ for bringing opera to the royal palace electronically — case closed. Not quite, said Schubin:

Right, but ...

In 1884, the Don Luís got to listen to Augusto Machado's Laureanna while unable to leave the palace due to official mourning for his sister, the Princess of Saxony. But that was only one of many non-commercial transmissions.

In 1885, the world's first subscription service began in Lisbon with Boito's Mefistofele. The theatrical promoters certainly based the service on what happened the previous year, which was very well publicized. But the commercial service began in 1885.

Punch, 1878: "At a quarter to nine, turn on 'Voi che sapete' from Covent Garden" Advantage Schubin. And so to research:

Luís Filipe Maria Fernando Pedro de Alcântara António Miguel Rafael Gabriel Gonzaga Xavier Francisco de Assis João Augusto Júlio Valfando de Saxe-Coburgo-Gotha e Bragança, 1838-1889, was King of Portugal and the Algarves as King Luís I between 1861 and 1889. (Algarves is the subject of another story.)

His private "opera HD" venture began in 1884; Laureanna, one of Machado's 15 stage works, composed the year before, and premiered in Marseilles. In order to find out more about it, you have to register in Portuguese, so I let that go. At any rate, the public/commercial tele(phone)casts of opera began in Lisbon the following year.

Never one to miss a chance to provide additional information, Schubin quoted from his study:

For the Met's live cinema transmissions, I can go back to 1876, when The New York Times speculated that telephone would be used to deliver opera from the Academy of Music (the city’s main opera house at the time). The following year, a cartoon in Punch’s Almanack for 1878 showed how a home of the future would be able to select from different opera offerings. [And a "stringed quartette from St. James's Hall.]

To go back even further in history:

In 1849, Antonio Meucci, former head of special effects at Teatro della Pergola in Florence and then technical director at Teatro Tacon in Havana, began work on electric transmission of sound by wire. He continued his work on what became the telephone in Staten Island, NY, where he hosted and hired Giuseppe Garibaldi to make those modern candles. [Yes, that Garibaldi.] There's a portrait of Meucci in the Budapest Telephone Museum.

The mind boggles. And, speaking of Met HD today, watching performances at home is certainly more convenient and inexpensive than going to movie theaters — against the loss of both screen size and community experience.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].