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Luskin: Good Vibrations

11/17/11 5:55PM By Deborah Luskin
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(Host) Humans have been inventing technologies for recording music ever since Edison. Commentator Deborah Luskin recently enjoyed technology that allows the broadcast of live opera - technology that overcomes time and distance – but not, as it turns out, Mother Nature.

(Luskin) I’m old enough to have seen new technologies come and go.

I was born into a vinyl, Long Playing world, and remember when my family upgraded to stereo. The car I learned to drive on had an eight-track tape, and I’ve seen CDs replaced by electronic downloads.

But there are things that I assumed technology couldn’t touch – like live performances, especially of opera, which clings to one very astounding and antique tradition: it’s performed without amplification.

The word ‘opera’ means ‘the works.’ An opera incorporates both instrumental and vocal music that tells a story, and is acted on a stage with scenery, costumes, and lights. It’s a high form of spectacle that’s based on a simple principle of physics: vibrating airwaves make musical sound, whether it be a mallet against a drum head, wind across a reed, horsehair on a string, or air crossing vocal chords. Opera singers are the equivalent of world-class athletes; they use their well-trained bodies to produce amazing song.

The art form originated in Europe at the end of the fifteen hundreds, and for centuries opera was the epitome of highbrow culture. Even today, good seats at one of the world-class opera houses like the Metropolitan are shockingly expensive – not even accounting for the transportation and lodging required for a fan from Vermont.

But here’s where technology plugs in. I can now spend a Saturday afternoon watching a live performance of the Metropolitan Opera via a service called Live in HD – without even leaving Vermont.

Simulcast technology allows me to sit in the historic Latchis Theater in downtown Brattleboro while watching the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in New York City – all for a fraction of the price. And all the seats are fantastic, because the camera gives an unobstructed view.

But it gets better: Between acts, simulcast audiences are treated to interviews with the principal singers, the director, the choreographer and the maestro. And when there isn’t an interview in progress, the camera stays on, giving the off-site audience a glimpse of the set-changes in progress backstage. It’s fascinating. It almost makes up for missing the raising of the chandeliers that starts every performance at the Met - a magical moment that cues the audience to willingly suspend disbelief.

Those of us in the fifty-four countries where these Met performances are beamed by satellite have other benefits. In Brattleboro, these include easy parking and Vermont’s famously casual attire.

But even the HD technology is not immune to glitches. During a recent performance, the signal broke up just after Don Giovanni burst into flames. Heavy snow interrupted the transmission, and the audience left the theater grumbling – but whether it was about missing the last few minutes of music or snow in October, I wasn’t sure.
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