AUDIE CORNISH, host: Wagner's Ring Cycle has been a staple of opera repertoire for a nearly century and a half. This is a recording from The Metropolitan Opera a few years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF "SIEGFRIED," THE METROPOLITAN OPERA)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing in foreign language)

CORNISH: This season, the company is giving the work a 21st century makeover with a new production of "Siegfried," the third opera in the cycle. The staging features 3-D-like special effects; computerized projections that create spooky optical illusions of forests alive with creeping, flying fauna. But it turns out these special effects are just the latest technological leap in the opera house.

Engineer, opera buff and media historian Mark Schubin has traced these advances, going back to the 19th century, and joins me now from our New York bureau.

Mark Schubin, welcome to the program.

MARK SCHUBIN: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: And, of course, you are also and Emmy Award-winning engineer for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. So maybe you can explain to me how exactly is a live performance - how does that involve 3-D?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Is that a misnomer?

SCHUBIN: Well, in this case, 3-D probably is a misnomer. But I should point out that there have been operas that were performed live that did have true 3-D, with the audience wearing glasses. You're familiar with those pictures of movie audiences all wearing their 3-D glasses. Well, there's a picture that shows an audience that looks a little classier than a movie audience. And that was actually taken at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during the performance of "Monsters of Grace," which was a Philip Glass opera that had a true three-dimensional backdrop.

CORNISH: That's just one example of a sort of a modern media innovation. And I'm saying modern by opera standards. Can you list may be two or three others, just straight examples of things that opera tried out before they became widespread or, in some cases, before they were technically invented?

SCHUBIN: Sure. Well, we're listening to radio right now. The first radio transmission of the complete opera was in 1910. That's 10 years before what some people consider the first radio station. Even before that, there were people who were listening to opera at how via telephone lines, using headphones and, in some cases, in stereo sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN OPERA)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing in foreign language)

SCHUBIN: It all began with an invalid in New York; a guy by the name of Edward Fry who had been an opera impresario, and in later life was stuck in bed. So he had telephone lines installed to the local opera house - the Academy of Music. And they came to his house, and he could hold him up the telephone receiver and listen to the opera. And that was in 1880.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN OPERA)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing in foreign language)

CORNISH: You also say at one point that I guess the idea of pay monthly service essentially started with opera?

SCHUBIN: That's correct. There was pay cable beginning in 1885 for opera. It was in Lisbon. That one was an annual fee; you paid the equivalent of about $1,800 today to get the entire opera season of 90 operas. There was also stereo transmission in Paris. And you could go to a train station or a hotel lobby, put in your coin and listen to three minutes of opera. And there was a home service that had an annual fee for the lines and then it was pay per event.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN OPERA)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

SCHUBIN: But there was another service that started in Budapest in 1893 and that was a monthly subscription service. And for that one, the guy knew that the opera were going to start at 8 PM and he had these lines going to the homes, and he figured, hmm, how can I maximize the use of these lines? And so he invented something that your listeners are very familiar with, the newscast. And the first newscast was in 1893, created to use the lines that were put in for the delivery of opera.

CORNISH: Newscast, meaning they actually delivered a little bit of news before the show? Or, you mean the act of the broadcasting?

SCHUBIN: No, he actually had people that he called stentors and they would read the news into the microphone. They would do it before the opera entering information. It's the progenitor of NPR, if you will.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: And I'm going to start using stentors, 'cause that is an awesome name for what we do.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: We have a clip from a 1908 film. And this is the voice, at least, of the opera singer Enrico Caruso.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "LA DONNA E MOBILE")

ENRICO CARUSO TENOR: (Singing in foreign language)

CORNISH: Mark Schubin, what can you tell us about this film?

SCHUBIN: Well, that's sort of the origin of the Milli Vanilli scandal...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCHUBIN: It's the beginning of lip-synching...

CORNISH: So it's Caruso's voice but we're not looking at him.

SCHUBIN: It's Caruso's voice. Right, it was a manufacturer of a movie sound system, this one was called the Cinephone. And he wanted to promote his sound system so he hired a actor in the lip-sync to Caruso.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "LA DONNA E MOBILE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing in foreign language)

CORNISH: How do you think that opera is influencing the modern media world in this century?

SCHUBIN: Well, you mentioned that the beginning of this so-called 3-D projection system that's being used in "Siegfried," it's some of the most advanced technology imaginable. And there are people who work on rock concerts, who work in all sorts of other levels of computer graphics and projection, who are calling people at the Met every day and say, ooh, what did you do today, what would you do today, because it's just so amazing how they are pushing the limits.

CORNISH: Mark Schubin, he's an Emmy Award-winning engineer with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He joined us from our New York bureau.

Mark Schubin, thank you for talking with us.

SCHUBIN: My pleasure, Thank you.

CORNISH: You can see video of the new 3-D production of "Siegfried" from the Metropolitan opera at NPRMusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

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