Opera Dips Its Toes into the Podcast Pond

The Nashville Opera is experimenting with a new program offering downloadable recordings of the director's commentary, designed for listening during the performance. Industry watchers want to know whether it will draw audiences or add to the list of tech distractions afflicting opera lovers.

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Cell phones are not welcome at the Nashville Opera, but mp3 players are. The company is developing podcasts intended for the audience to enjoy during the live performance. It's believed to be one of the first of its kind and podcasters got a chance to test it out this weekend.

NPR's Audie Cornish was at the performance.

AUDIE CORNISH: Tiny digital screens flickered throughout the house audience at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Minutes before the start of the Gounod's "Romeo and Juliet," audience members with digital music players are instructed to hit play on the first down beat from the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. But Margaret Duncan is still fumbling with her earphones.

Have you ever done a podcast before?

Ms. MARGARET DUNCAN (Audience Member): No, I've never even had a pod in my hand before. So I'll have visual input and ear input, and we'll see if I blow up or what.

CORNISH: Duncan and her roommate, Patricia Taylor, are season ticket holders and have been coming to the Nashville Opera together nearly 10 years. The pair bought their iPods just five hours before the performance in order to take advantage of the company's new podcast of cast commentaries.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHN HOOMES (Nashville Opera Association): Hi. This is John Hoomes, the director of "Romeo and Juliet" and the artistic director of the Nashville Opera Association. I want to welcome you to our first ever director and cast commentary. We thank you for coming tonight, and we're going to be talking through the show as you listen in. I have the cast her with me.

CORNISH: And like a movie commentary, you're supposed to listen to the podcast on your second visit to the opera. Specially discounted tickets are available to encourage audience members to check it out and hear people like lead vocalist Malinda Haslett offer a peek behind the curtain.

Ms. MALINDA HASLETT (Opera Singer): If you're looking at the stage, look at the stairs on the left, and that's what we call stage right. Behind that is an escape set of stairs, so we can come up and down the back, and you'll never see us.

(Soundbite of applause)

CORNISH: Come intermission, there are just a handful of people in the audience with white ear buds dangling around their necks. But they all say the same thing.

Unidentified Man: I would have to say there's a little bit of sensory overload.

Unidentified Woman: It's over sensory.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman: Sensory overload.

Unidentified Man: It's like sensory overload, trying to listen to the music, read the subtitles and listen to the podcast.

CORNISH: Hoomes and his cast recorded their thoughts on their arias, his staging, and anything else that came in to their heads earlier this week while watching a tape of their last performance. Hoomes says he got the idea from an amateur commentary he found online, created by fans of the Indiana Jones movie, "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Mr. HOOMES: The commentaries are a waste of time on some DVDs. But I think the best ones don't tell me what I'm watching. They tell me basically what went into doing that scene, producing it and the thought behind it, the dramatic intent behind a certain scene.

CORNISH: But unlike a DVD, which you can pause and rewind, the opera podcast is directly competing with the stage for your ear and attention every moment.

(Soundbite of music)

CORNISH: Patricia Taylor found herself drawing stares when deep into the commentary she broke into loud laughter in the theater.

Ms. PATRICIA TAYLOR (Audience Member): I love it. It is - it adds a whole different dimension. And one of the things that just grabs you is you're seeing or hearing what the performers have to say and their interpretations of what's going on for them at any particular moment onstage.

CORNISH: Shane Scott(ph) describes himself as more Grand Ole Opry than opera, but says the podcast might tempt him to come back for more.

Mr. SHEEN SCOTT (Audience Member): You know, for someone who's never been to the opera before, I have this sense that maybe it's a little bit on a higher plain or level than I'm normally used to dealing with. But when you listen to the commentary, it is just like watching a movie from that regard. I think the director has made himself very accessible to just anybody coming in off the street and seeing opera for the first time.

Mr. REED HUMMELL (Marketing Director, Nashville Opera): This is going to be our future audience.

CORNISH: Nashville Opera marketing director Reed Hummell.

Mr. HUMMELL: You go to a hockey game and hear a national - and the Predators have just about won game, they have the fat lady singing. That's nothing like what it is. And if we can bring younger people into the theater, have them experience this for the first time, this will be the future of the artform.

CORNISH: Nashville Opera leaders say they will measure the success of the innovation by ticket buyers. They're hoping to get an idea of who will take advantage of the program, older patrons or brand new fans. And if they stick with the podcasts, expect to see more of those white ear buds showing up in darkened theaters.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Nashville.

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