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The crowd at Klyde Warren Park to watch the free simulcast on opening night of <em>Carmen</em> at Dallas Opera

Calling All Geeks

In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny gives the lowdown on today’s high-tech opera and the technology behind simulcasting.



published Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dallas —  As the old joke goes, there are 10 types of people: those who understand binary, and those who don’t. (As most readers will know, “10” in binary is “2” in our familiar decimal system).

In the same vein, when it comes to technology, there are two kinds of people in this world. There are the “early adopters” and others who thrill to the latest advances and revel in the chance to understand exactly how these new technologies can be applied. Let me just say, this “Off the Cuff” is definitely for you.

On the other hand, there are those who think one of the greatest technological achievements of the 21st century is the arrival of DVD players and other electronic devices that adjust themselves to Daylight Savings Time. For those who thoroughly enjoy the magic and would rather not yank the curtain back to view the technology wizard within, allow me to suggest that you scroll without delay to the section on our hugely successful simulcast in Klyde Warren Park.

I wrote in an earlier edition about a transformational innovation in the opera house: the invention of supertitles by the late, great Lotfi Mansouri, who was also a dear personal friend and mentor throughout much of my career. Most American opera patrons are familiar with supertitles—translations of the opera text, projected simultaneously with the words being sung on stage. The supertitles are projected either directly over or at the sides of the stage. The technology required for these types of projected supertitles is relatively “low-tech,” relying primarily on a projector with enough power to produce a crisp, clear image of the text. A variant of this approach is to deploy “seat back” supertitles, such as can be found at Santa Fe Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. These systems are more complex than projection-based systems displaying supertitles above the stage, but the technology required remains relatively simple.

At the opposite extreme of technological complexity are simulcasts. Readers of this column will know how passionate I am about community outreach, and simulcasts remain one of the best ways to reach a large audience outside the traditional opera house setting (particularly for companies that lack the resources of the Royal Opera House or the Metropolitan Opera—companies that can afford global distribution of their work to neighborhood movie theaters). From a technology point of view, simulcasts require four main elements:

Upstream content creation. The first step in presenting a simulcast is generating audio and visual content. In many media settings, this is referred to as “capture” (e.g. for copying onto CD or DVD), but simulcasts are typically structured as a signal “pass through”—i.e. no recording is made of the entire performance. The evolving norm for opera simulcasts is to employ between five and seven cameras inside the theater. Typically manned by human operators who control the camera positions, it is also possible to utilize robotic cameras controlled from a central location.

Generating audio for simulcasts presents a special challenge. Unlike performers in Broadway shows, opera singers are virtually never miked, which makes it much more difficult to pick up high-quality audio. Microphones can be placed in fixed positions along and above the stage, but since the singers move around the stage throughout the performance, the volume picked up will vary considerably from moment to moment. At TDO, we have had good success using sports-style parabolic microphones, with operators tracking singers’ movements across the stage—similar to the use of follow-spots to provide extra lighting to illuminate performers on stage.

Signal mixing and processing. Once all of the camera and audio feeds have been established, they are connected via cables to a truck parked near the opera house, where the director can cut between different camera shots, balance audio, and manage the overall “look and feel” of the performance. These trucks can be standard or high definition, but for large screens, or even high density smaller screens, high definition signal processing is an absolute requirement. This brings us back to supertitles. Whereas, as noted before, supertitles in the opera house are relatively low-tech, they are decidedly high-tech in a simulcast. Working with our media partner, we use a separate electronic system to add the supertitles electronically to the images transmitted by the cameras. Without going into all of the technical details, this is far trickier than it sounds.

Transmission. Once the final signal has been produced in the truck, it must be transmitted to the receiving location. If available, optical fiber links are cost effective and reliable, and become more ubiquitous each year. Fiber has extremely high bandwidth (i.e. the ability to carry a great deal of content or information), so it is an ideal choice for high-definition signal transmissions. Another well-established alternative is transmission via satellite truck. In this scenario, the signal is transmitted using a special uplink truck to a commercial satellite, and then sent back to earth where it is received via a downlink truck or fixed antenna. This approach works very well when the transmission and receiving locations are spaced far apart, but can also be used to bridge short distances if fiber is not available—leading to the almost comic situation where a signal is sent to the uppermost atmosphere and back rather than crossing a few hundred feet along the surface of the earth.

Screen and audio systems. Once the signal is received at the secondary location it can be split between its audio and visual components, and fed to the sound system and screen(s), respectively. At The Dallas Opera, we have presented opera very successfully on the large screen at AT&T Stadium, and also used other screen technologies near the Winspear Opera House, including screens mounted on trucks or hung from pavilions. For TDO’s recent simulcast in Klyde Warren Park, we worked with our vendor to assemble an optimal-sized screen using ultra-lightweight, modular panels. As in many aspects of projection and screen technology, we can expect to see steady improvements in image density and brightness on these temporary screens, making them an increasingly flexible and attractive option.

To continue with the systems analogy, this now brings us to the “user experience.” In Klyde Warren Park, we used a modular screen, hung from the Muse Family Performance Pavilion. Advances in screen technology were a big help here, as the lighter weight of the panels meant that we could construct a larger screen, and still remain within the weight limits.

As has been reported elsewhere, the crowd was upwards of four thousand people (3,764 being the official count by the good people at Klyde Warren Park). Naturally, we were all delighted with the high turnout, which we attributed to the popularity of the opera, the engaging pre-performance activities (Carmen costume contest, “Toreador Song Sing-a-long,” and cartoon and movie shorts – all MC’d by Jagger), in addition to the beautiful weather.

Here’s a photo of the crowd on its feet, facing the Hunt building for the National Anthem. Hunt Consolidated had graciously made their light displays available to us for the evening, and we had timed the display to include a flag waving throughout the anthem. As is obvious from the photo, we attracted a broad range of ages to this tightly packed event. The illuminated buildings around the Park were very dramatic, and provided a beautiful “frame” to the evening’s activities. What this photo doesn’t capture is the number of young people and children attending the performance, not to mention quite a few dogs.

Photo: Luke McKenzie/The Dallas Opera

And here’s a photo of patrons watching the screen. What I enjoy about this photo is observing the different types of patron experience. Some patrons are deeply engaged, eyes focused intently on the screen. Others are more casual, watching opera with one eye, and people-watching with the other. Still others are merely curious, and exploring for themselves whether to pull up a chair (or a blanket), and immerse themselves fully in the production.

Photo: Luke McKenzie/The Dallas Opera

In conclusion, simulcasts represent an extremely important vehicle to bring the glorious operatic art form to people of every age and background. The combination of stunning sets and costumes, paired with beautiful singing, is visually and acoustically stunning, and a natural for an out-of-theater experience. At TDO, we are thrilled to have attracted audiences of up to 15,000 in a stadium setting, and now up to nearly 4,000 in an urban park. We are also very grateful to our union partners—the American Federation of Musicians, the American Guild of Musical Artists, and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees—for their enthusiastic support of these events. Moving forward, this innovative approach to opera will continue to play a vital role in expanding our “community footprint,” and provide a superb way to build the audiences of the future.

◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in TheaterJones.com. Below this photo is a list of previous columns:

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Calling All Geeks
In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny gives the lowdown on today’s high-tech opera and the technology behind simulcasting.
by Keith Cerny

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