Dallas — Anyone reading this post on a computer or a mobile device is relying on a set of technologies that have radically improved over the past 20 years. (In this regard, it is revealing to remember that IBM personal computers only became popular in the mid-1980s, and Amazon.com, one of the most successful online retail sites, was founded in 1994). We have grown accustomed to relying on computers and the Internet in nearly every aspect of our lives—both personal and professional—and I wanted to dedicate this month’s column to describing some of the ways in which these technological advances have also opened new creative opportunities for opera companies—onstage, and off.
Describing all the major technological advances in the last two decades would require far more than 2,000 words, but I did want to identify six trends that amplify and extend the creative efforts of the leadership team at The Dallas Opera. These are:
- Exponential increase in computer processing power. Computer processing power has increased astonishingly since the 1960s, allowing the development and commercialization of numerous business and consumer technologies that have improved speed, efficiency, accuracy, and reliability to a significant degree.
- More powerful projectors with lower cost. Increases in computing power, coupled with advances in light source design, have given opera companies the ability to integrate sophisticated projections into productions.
- Digital photography, video and Internet photo libraries, and public domain images. The Internet now provides set and projection designers with access to innumerable images to help inspire them, as well as free or low cost images that can be incorporated into new production designs. Powerful search engines make finding these images very easy, especially compared with researching them in brick and mortar libraries.
- Satellite time as an inexpensive commodity. Remarkably, it is now possible to book satellite time on a website with a few clicks of the mouse. While satellite transmissions have expanded the reach of international sports for many years, smaller organizations, such as opera companies and symphonies, can now transmit high-definition signal content cheaply and easily.
- Fiber optic networks and Wave Division Multiplexing (WDM). Ever wonder why the cost of international phone calls has dropped so much over the last 20 years? A big part of the answer is that analog phone signals are converted into digital pulses and sent across optical fiber, which allows many different calls to share a single fiber. One unique property of light waves is that different frequencies do not interfere with one another as they travel through a medium. Wave Division Multiplexing allows one fiber to carry hundreds of different signals simultaneously, enabling communication companies to send enormous quantities of voice and data signals without delays or interruptions. This same technology also allows opera companies to send signals from one location to another for cost-efficient broadcasts and simulcasts.
- Recruiting talent and securing opera productions using Youtube.com and on-line searches. Just as the Internet and online libraries have opened up a treasure trove of digital images, it is now possible to hear singers remotely via streaming services (with some pros and cons as noted below). Online resources also enable opera companies to research the availability of productions, and recruit even entry-level talent based on national searches (not just local or regional ones).
These six areas do not include other important advances of recent years, including ongoing improvements in microphone and speaker quality, video / HD, theatrical lighting, local WiFi, and cueing software designed to control lighting and sound cues but, together as a group, they have had an enormous impact on the opera world.
Of these trends, the increase in computing power is the most transformative. Futurist and CEO Gordon E. Moore, who co-founded Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation, wrote a seminal paper in 1965 entitled “Cramming more components onto integrated circuits.” Though only 3 ½ pages long, this paper has had enormous impact on the computer field, and is still widely quoted half a century after publication. In his original paper, Gordon Moore predicted that the number of components in an integrated current would double every year (“Moore’s Law”). In 1975, he revised the expected frequency rate to double every two years. Moore’s Law has proved to be extremely accurate and has also driven significant capital investment and R&D prioritization in the semiconductor and computer industries.
Alert readers will have already spotted the significance of any measurement that doubles every two years, forming as it does the basis for exponential growth. This remarkable change in computing power can best be illustrated through an analogy: In 1965, the median income in the U.S. was $4,659 per year, using the national wage index. By 2015, that same statistic put the figure at $48,099—an increase of about 10 times. If, however, wages over that period had grown at the same rate as computing power, and doubled every other year for 50 years, the median income (as of 2015) would be $15,633,098,688 – equivalent to more than 80% of the entire domestic product of the U.S.!
How does this increase in computing power affect the opera world? For this column, I will focus on just three areas: onstage projections; local, national and international simulcasts; and casting, production research and recruiting.
Since the move to the state-of-the-art Winspear Opera House in the fall of 2009, The Dallas Opera has employed projections in ten different productions. These include productions where the projections themselves form the central visual element on the stage (e.g. Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in 2012, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt in 2014, and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta in 2015), productions with significant use of projections to enhance traditional wood and metal sets (e.g. Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick in 2010 and 2016, Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s Everest in 2015, Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott in 2015, and Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus in 2015), and productions where projections play a smaller but important role in establishing the location of the action or setting the emotional tone (e.g. Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers in 2014, Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw in 2017, and Douglas J. Cuomo’s Arjuna’s Dilemma in 2017). Of these ten productions, The Dallas Opera took the lead in commissioning visual content for all but four.
These productions rely upon several of the trends noted above. In particular, they require high-speed, relatively low-cost projectors, as these types of technology-intensive productions can require up to ten! In addition, they also require extensive computer processing power to complete complex renderings—such as the stunning “starscape” sequence at the beginning of Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick, and the delightful animation sequences used in BreakThru Film’s cinematic adventure, The Magic Piano, presented by The Dallas Opera at the OPERA America conference this past May.
The world premiere of Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s Everest, which TDO commissioned and premiered in 2015, provides another example of the importance of computer processing power. Early in the opera, the projectors displayed a topographical map of the Himalayas in the vicinity of Mount Everest, projected onto a flat scrim (see below). The scrim then “flew out” to reveal a set consisting of 88 four-by-four foot wooden cubes, which became a surface for both a fantastic array of projections and a convincing demonstration of the grinding physical demands of high-altitude mountaineering.
Watchout software, expertly deployed by Projection Designer Elaine J. McCarthy and her team, seamlessly adjusted the image from a flat surface to a 3-D one, in synch with the scrim flying out. This software requires significant real-time processing power, made possible by faster computers.
LOCAL, NATIONAL, AND INTERNATIONAL SIMULCASTS
The Dallas Opera has presented fifteen free public simulcasts since 2010, reaching nearly 75,000 patrons in total. Most of the audience for these simulcasts has been in North Texas, but TDO has also entertained audiences in regional markets such as Wichita Falls and Galveston; national markets including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, and Philadelphia; and international markets including London and Stockholm. These performances have almost all been shot in High Definition, which is essential for achieving adequate image quality on large screens, and we have been delighted to partner with WFAA-TV / Channel 8 for technical and other broadcast assistance.
Getting the signal to all of these different markets can be accomplished in different ways, but we generally rely on fiber connections and satellites (sometimes as a backup). For example, TDO’s simulcasts to Klyde Warren Park rely on a local fiber link. Simulcasts to AT&T Stadium rely on a commercial fiber link, with a pair of satellite trucks in case the fiber link goes down. Our most extensive transmission project to date was the 2014 simulcast of Tod Machover’s sci-fi robot opera Death and the Powers to nine different locations. This ambitious event required three separate satellites, a fiber link to Los Angeles, and transatlantic fiber link to London. None of this would have been possible without the emergence of relatively inexpensive HD video cameras, fiber links, and reasonably-priced satellite time.
CASTING, PRODUCTION RESEARCH AND RECRUITING
The Internet has had an explosive impact on many aspects of business and society, sometimes for the good, and other times, less so. The emergence of streaming video services such as YouTube.com allows our Musical Director Emmanuel Villaume, Casting Manager David Lomeli, and me to remotely evaluate many singers with whom we are not already familiar. On the positive side, this approach allows us to screen large number of singers, especially for secondary and tertiary roles, without expensive and time-consuming travel. Videos provide some basic information about the artists, including the tone quality of the voice, vocal range, musicianship, stage presence, and physique. On the negative side, videos do not reveal the true power of the voice, and the repertoire available on-line tends to be “hit or miss.” (It’s only somewhat useful to hear a singer performing Bernstein if we are considering casting her for Verdi). Still, remote exposure is a useful tool for getting a better sense of the available talent. If nothing else, it helps us to prioritize our research time and travel.
The Internet has also allowed us to evaluate many productions for possible rental. In common with many opera companies, TDO can only produce occasional new productions, and must rely on rentals for the rest. Through diligent Internet research, supplemented by personal contacts with our fellow producing opera companies in the U.S. and Europe, we are now able to review multiple productions for possible inclusion in our season—for example, there are currently 39 different productions for Bizet’s Carmen available for consideration, 34 for Verdi’s La Traviata, and 25 for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Our audiences regularly comment on the variety and quality of these carefully selected productions.
Lastly, the emergence and growth of the Internet has had a major impact on our ability to recruit artistic and administrative talent. The proliferation of on-line job sites has created a national market for even entry-level positions. The vast majority of positions are advertised online, making it easier to track job openings and personnel changes across companies. The process of screening candidates is much faster due to the proliferation of Internet resources (but personal referencing is still essential). As with productions, Internet research is merely a starting point, but one that has allowed us to elevate the experience and quality of our hires at all levels.
In conclusion, the emergence of low-cost, powerful computers and projectors, supplemented by more sophisticated software and comprehensive image libraries, has already had a major impact on the field. These innovations, coupled with TDO’s ability to disseminate relatively inexpensive video content to a wide audience and tap into a fascinating range of productions, potential hires, and global expertise, is changing the business of opera for the better. It is exciting to contemplate what the future holds, including the use of holographic images, virtual reality, and true 3D projections.
TDO will take its next step into this technological and media-rich future by presenting the United States premiere of Michel van der Aa’s opera Sunken Garden in the upcoming season. This groundbreaking work includes live opera singers, amplified orchestra, a physical set and costumes, 2D projections, and 3D film. The Winspear Opera House audiences will be provided with high-tech 3D glasses (photo below) in order to fully experience the opera singers’ interaction with each other—and with the 3D film.
Single tickets go on sale Monday, July 10 and I, for one, can’t wait!
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears the first Friday of each month in TheaterJones.com.
- January 2012 "A Scheme of Delight"
- February 2012 "Visiting Wagner's Bayreuth"
- March 2012 "Commissioning a Successful Opera"
- April 2012 "The New Opera Audience"
- May 2012 "Rivers and Deltas of Musical Time"
- June 2012 "Operatic Blockbusters"
- July 2012 "Maximizing Dallas Opera's Community Footprint"
- August 2012 "The Santa Fe Festival Model"
- September 2012 "Postcard from Glyndebourne"
- October 2012 "Verdi's Egypt: Cracking the Code"
- November 2012 "It's Not Just Contemporary Anymore"
- December 2012 "Singing the Blues"
- January 2013 "Puccini's Golden Dozen"
- February 2013 "Opera and Popular Culture"
- March 2013 "A Dangerous Experiment"
- April 2013 "The Case of the Jealous Mezzo"
- May 2013 "Winning the Red Queen's Race"
- June 2013 "Managing the Opera Company of the Future"
- July 2013 "Raked Over the Coals"
- August 2013 "Hogarth in Reverse"
- September 2013 "No Genuflecting Required"
- October 2013 "2B or Not 2B"
- November 2013 "Calling All Geeks"
- December 2013 "Stravinsky's Last Word"
- January 2014 "Opera Without Borders"
- February 2014 "To Be or Not To Be"
- March 2014 "A Mirror of His Time"
- April 2014 "A Postcard from Oman"
- May 2014 "Building Musical Brands That Deliver"
- June 2014 "The Turning of the Tide"
- July 2014 "Two Sides to Every Screen"
- August 2014 "Life and Death in the Mountains"
- September 2014 "Smells Like Team Spirit"
- October 2014 "Salome's Second Act"
- November 2014 "Opera in the Age of Anxiety"
- December 2014 "Just the Fachs, Ma'am"
- January 2015 "Inside Santa's Workshop"
- February 2015 "The New Verismo"
- March 2015 "Cultivating Great Women Conductors"
- April 2015 "We've Got You Covered"
- May 2015 "Top of Their Game"
- June 2015 "Shattering the Operatic Glass Ceiling"
- July 2015 "A Tsunami of North American Opera"
- August 2015 "The Dallas Opera's Riverboat Adventure"
- September 2015 "Supporting a World of Women Composers"
- October 2015 "On the Prowl for Opera's MVPs"
- November 2015: "Why Should Broadway Have all the Fun?"
- December 2015: "A 21st Century Sleigh Ride"
- January 2016: "What We Learned from the Women Conductors"
- February 2016: "Gender Parity in Opera Management"
- March 2016: "Conducting in High Def"
- April 2016: "A Symphonic Memorial to Babi Yar"
- May 2016: "Show Boast"
- June 2016: "Concerns from Women Conductors"
- July 2016: "Planning for Opera America 2016"
- August 2016: "How Boards Can Break Glass Ceilings"
- September 2016: "A Rattlesnake in the Opera House"
- October 2016: "Fundraising and Innovation"
- November 2016: "Postcard from Valencia"
- December 2016: "Captain Ahab's Musket"
- January 2017: "First Impressions on the Second IWC"
- February 2017: "First Impressions on the Second IWC, Part 2"
- March 2017: "All Eyes on Dallas Opera"
- April 2017: "Britten's Neglected Masterpiece"
- May 2017: "Opera Conference Highlights"
- June 2017: "Outlooks for Women in Opera"