Opera and Electronics: Five Centuries Leading to Met HD

Janos Gereben on November 5, 2013
Met's gala celebrations today recall lighting in ancient opera houses
Met's gala celebrations today recall lighting in ancient opera houses

In last week's column, we reported on Evan Baker's sumptuous new book, From the Score to the Stage: An Illustrated History of Continental Opera Production and Staging.

One response to the item came from Mark Schubin, who bought the book, and commented: "It's huge and gorgeous!" In a note to Baker, Schubin wrote:

Like you, I am also an independent historian and lecturer dealing with opera, but, as a media-technology engineer, I deal with it from the standpoint of the intersecting histories of media technology and opera. As in your case, I also have experience dealing with opera production, in my case from a media-technology standpoint.

I have, for example, been (freelance) engineer-in-charge of the Metropolitan Opera's media department since 1973 (when its functions were handled by the technical department). I've also done media work for, among others, New York City Opera, the Opera Company of Philadelphia, Washington National Opera, Dallas Opera, Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Canadian Opera, Australian Opera, and the Royal Opera (Covent Garden).

Among the many details in Baker's book Schubin discussed was this arcane and fascinating one:

There is a major point on which our historical findings disagree. I'm not yet prepared to say you are incorrect, but my research strongly suggests so. It relates to chandeliers in the opera house prior to the middle of the 19th century.
Henry Bridges' Microcosm clock played Handel's music in 1732
Henry Bridges' Microcosm clock played Handel's music in 1732

The large opera houses needed more central lighting, thus the use of chandeliers. Candles, prior to the middle of the 19th century, however, were very different from today's. They were soft, smoky, stinky, and frequently toxic. Most significantly, their wicks were not consumed. As the fuel was consumed, therefore, the wicks kept growing.

Special scissors, called snuffers, were used to trim the wicks. For sconces, a footman could trim them during the opera. On stage, singers could trim them, if necessary. But who could trim those on a chandelier hanging over the audience?

Thus there was the 1678 report from the Mercure Gallant that you cite on pages 27-28. The chandelier had to rise into the ceiling, where the wicks could be trimmed (or, in this case, extinguished). But, as that report indicates, the auditorium was thus darkened, which conflicts with your statement on page 90 that chandeliers remained lit during the entire performance. You note that large quantities of candles would be required for that. How could they be installed in the chandelier?

Rather than following the mystery of candles through, I looked into Schubin's work, and found a mother lode of brilliant historical research, including detailed explanation of Met HD logistics.

Baker's <em>From the Score to the Stage</em>
Baker's From the Score to the Stage

Also note his The Fandom of the Opera: How the Audience for a Four-Century-Old Art Form Helped Create the Modern Media World. Among the subjects Schubin discussed at last week's in the National Opera Center about media technology and opera chronology:

- 1520-1591: Vincenzo Galilei: father of modern acoustics, sung drama, and Galileo (whom he taught experimentation); after reading Galilei’s 1581 music-theory book, Johannes Kepler formulates 3rd law of planetary motion, leading to modern satellites
- 1673: Acoustic opera transmission beyond the house ("plazacast") suggested by Athansius Kircher in Phonurgia Nova
- 1733: Music from Handel operas played by Henry Bridges’s Microcosm clock
- 1784: Automaton built for Marie Antoinette plays Gluck opera music on hammered dulcimer
- 1821: After a demonstration of Charles Wheatstone's "enchanted lyre," Repository of Arts predicts wired opera broadcasts
- 1848: "Telakouphanon" (acoustic telephone) service delivering opera to homes for a fee predicted in Punch
- 1860: Oldest opera recordings ("phonautograph"), from Massé’s La reine Topaze; not played back until 2009
- 1878: 1st aria recorded with intention of playback, Marie Rôze singing from Gounod’s Faust on Edison phonograph
- 1885: Music-box opera discs, 1st mass medium for sound; lead to disc changers and coin-operated players (1st juke boxes)
- 1885: Opera-at-home headphone listening subscription service begins with Mefistofele in Lisbon, 180,000 reis [about $1,850] for a season of 90 performances
- 1889: Oldest known surviving aria recording intended to be played, bass Peter Schram singing from Don Giovanni
- 1903: Ernani 1st "full-length" (abridged) opera recording (40 disks); nearly complete Pagliacci recorded in 1907
- 1907: Caruso’s 3rd Vesti la giubba earliest-recorded million seller; digital deconvolution later (1976) restores sound
- 1976: First commercial digital 16-bit audio recorder (Soundstream) & recording: The Mother of Us All at Santa Fe Opera

And on it goes, the straight line through centuries to today's HD casts.

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