Friday, January 6, 2012

Opera geeks unite! The Lens of Gesamtkunstwerk

Opera singers listening to radio-phone broadcast in 1922
Opera is groundbreaking. There, I said it.

German opera composer Richard Wagner used the term Gesamtkunstwerk - or total work of art - to discuss his ideal of unifying all works of art via the theater. He later described in detail his idea of the union of opera and drama (later called music drama despite Wagner's disapproval of the term), in which the individual arts are subordinated to a common purpose. Wagner felt that during his time (ca. 1850), the arts had drifted apart. He felt that this drift was responsible for creating such 'monstrosities' as Grand Opera - with it's bravura singing, sensational stage effects, and meaningless plots acting as background-noise to social gatherings.

To that end, it was Richard Wagner who took Gesamtkunstwerk to the next level by dimming the house lights of the theater before his productions began. That way, people were transported into the plot and were much less likely to chat while his major works such as the Ring cycle, and specifically its components Das Rheingold and Die Walk├╝re, were being performed.

Say what you will about Wagner (and there is plenty to be said), this was a brilliant idea.

In her blog post Through the Lens of Opera, Library of Congress Librarian Jennifer Harbster, brings us further proof of opera's groundbreaking achievements. Ms Harbster writes in part:
Disregard what you learned from the history books about the first sound movie, first color TV program, first stereo broadcast….because opera did it first!

*Some of the first synchronized sound movies were of opera arias shown at the Phono-Cinema-Theatre at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair.

*A sound movie of the complete opera Faust was released in Britain in 1907.

*NBC transmitted Carmen in color in 1953, the year before their “first color television” broadcast.

*The first stereo radio broadcast was from the Berlin Opera in 1925...

... Through the lens of opera, we can better understand the history of technology. During the telephone opera era, from 1880 to 1943, the idea of electronic home entertainment was born. As early as 1885,
Mefistofele was transmitted via a subscription service that delivered operas to homes, similar to today’s cable television. Also available was pay-per-event operas delivered over the telephone, resembling the model of our current pay-per-view.
It's a long way from the telephone opera era to the HD Transmissions of today, isn't it?

My inner-opera-geek wanted to learn more ... and luckily, there is this: In October of last year, the Library of Congress hosted a lecture by Mark Schubin on how opera helped create modern media technology. No joke - this is cool stuff for us opera-geeks. Mark Schubin, who is the engineer-in-charge of the Metropolitan Opera's media department as well as a multiple-Emmy Award winning fellow of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers knows his stuff. Visit this link for video on the lecture.

1 comment:

stray said...

As lectures go, that was pretty amazing. Thanks for posting the link!

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