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Opera and Media Technology: A Resource Guide

This guide provides suggested resources for researching the history of the evolving relationship between media technology and opera. Resources included range from print materials to online content.

Introduction

Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Performance of "The Flying Dutchman" Opera in Mobile, Alabama. 2010. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

In this context, media refers to the means of distribution and presentation of entertainment, news, and other forms of information. Media technology includes cables, moving-image screens, headphones, broadcast transmitters, satellites, and forms of storage such as discs and film. Opera is a form of sung theater in which the music is of great importance. Latin for "works," the word suggests the multiple art forms involved, including acting, architecture, costume design, dance, lighting, orchestral music, singing, musical and stage direction, set design, and storytelling.

The oldest opera still regularly performed, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, was written in 1607, in the same time period that Shakespeare was writing plays, and shortly before Galileo’s Starry Messenger and the King James version of the Bible appeared. By 1637 opera had become a commercial enterprise, and its high costs were offset by filling large auditoriums, with acoustic ducts used to help deliver the sound. By 1673, the idea of extending the sound outside the auditorium was proposed.

From the start, opera houses had engineering departments for dealing with stage machinery and special effects. By 1726, those effects included motion-image projection and, in 1849, the use of electric light (and an associated source of power). By 1880, listeners, connected by telephones, turned opera into the first electronic home entertainment. This led to the first stereo sound transmission (1881) and the first consumer headphones (by 1888). Thomas Edison indicated in his 1888 patent caveat that the purpose of movies would be the delivery of opera. Opera provided early movies with known titles, stories, stars, and music.

The earliest recording to sell a million copies was an opera aria, and opera was also the first commercial digital recording. Long-distance sound transmission was used for an opera “broadcast” at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, where viewers could also watch synchronized-sound movies of opera singers. An opera singer’s radio broadcast in 1907 helped convince the U.S. Navy to adopt voice-capable wireless technology. An opera was televised by 1934, and from 1951 through 1974 U.S. commercial networks commissioned operas for television.

Today, opera continues to push media technology. Interactive 3D computer-graphics projection on irregular and moving screens is used onstage. Live high-definition opera with multi-language subtitles is the number-one alternative or non-movie content in movie theaters worldwide. Academic and government laboratories are working on the technological challenges of “distributed” opera, with geographically separated performers, and the Internet is being used for collaborative and virtual-opera projects.