Left To Their Own Devices: Opera Rolls Out Live Mobile App With Audio

Oct 16, 2019

Like other traditional art forms – classical music, theater, ballet – opera is always seeking ways to attract new and younger audiences. While some critics argue radical reinvention is required, Pittsburgh Opera thinks it might have found another way: harnessing 21st-century technology to broaden the appeal of a genre whose masterworks are rooted in the 19th or earlier.

Pittsburgh Opera presents "Don Giovanni" at 7:30 p.m. Fri., Oct. 18, and 2 p.m. Sun., Oct. 20. Bendum Center, 237 Seventh St., Downtown

This past Saturday, at its season-opening performance of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” at the Benedum Center, the Opera formally introduced Live Note, a live mobile app that audiences are encouraged to use during performances. While symphonies and other opera troupes have been using apps for several years to deliver text and images during performances, Pittsburgh Opera is the first to include audio commentary piped straight into ticket-holders’ earbuds while a show is in progress.

That’s a big leap. Letting visitors glance at their smartphones for plot pointers is one thing. But providing them with sounds that don’t originate on the stage during an opera is a “big taboo,” said Christopher Hahn, the Opera’s long-time general director.

Christopher Hahn is general director of Pittsburgh Opera.
Credit Photo by Dan Klein / Courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera

Hahn said the goal is to break down “misconceptions” that scare people off opera – everything from the belief that formal dress is required to the fear that the show will be too confusing to follow. According to a 2018 National Endowment for the Arts survey, only 2.2 percent of U.S. adults attend opera – down from 3.2 percent in 2002. 

“We are developing the audiences of the future to ensure that there are not these barriers of comprehension,” said Hahn. “We’re wanting to open up the experience, we want to explore, we want to indicate the riches of what we’re experiencing, right there and then through our devices.”

The earliest version of Live Note debuted in 2014, with the Philadelphia Orchestra. (The idea came from a Drexel University professor who took a group of students to their first symphony and realized afterward that they’d been too confused to appreciate it.) The app was developed by San Diego-based InstantEncore, which went on to fashion versions for symphonies and opera companies around the U.S.

"We are developing the audiences of the future to ensure that there are not these barriers of comprehension"

InstantEncore approached Pittsburgh Opera in 2018. The troupe had long provided live audio commentary, through earphones, to visually impaired audience members. Hahn wanted to extend a “carefully curated” version of that service to general audiences.

To help develop the app, Pittsburgh Opera secured $150,000 in grants from advocacy group Opera America. Testing began the in the fall of 2018 with selected users who ranged from college students to retirees. Younger audience members, who tend to have had little exposure to opera but feel comfortable around digital devices, might benefit most, it was thought.

“Sitting down being quiet and staring at the stage is not enough for some people for them to really get it, to really feel connected to it,” said Dave Dombrosky, InstantEncore’s Pittsburgh-based chief marketing officer. “They need a different way in and this is a possibility for them.”

But not everyone liked the concept at first.

"Sitting down being quiet and staring at the stage is not enough for some people for them to really get it"

“I thought it was a horrible idea,” said Bob Sclabassi. He’s a life-long opera fan – a Pittsburgh Opera subscriber for three decades who’s made pilgrimages to La Scala, the opera house in Milan, Italy and even to see the Finnish National Opera. Sclabassi, a physician, engineer and entrepreneur, is also a former Pittsburgh Opera board member. He thought Live Note would be a distraction.

“You just love the musicality of opera, and you think something like that’s going to interfere with it, first of all for yourself and then for everyone around you,” he said.

InstantEncore acknowledged such challenges. “Even now, for the arts industry, this type of audience engagement is still seen as rather edgy, because [of] the idea of bringing a device into the performance space which some see almost as a sacred space,” said Dombrosky.

Developers worked to make the app unobtrusive, said Dombrosky. They limited the screen’s brightness, and made sure the audio didn’t work unless the earbuds were plugged in.

The text and audio commentary were carefully crafted, too. Content was researched, written and voiced by Mia Bonnewell, a local independent opera singer and educator. She covered topics from the shows’ historical context to their musical themes. But it’s not wall-to-wall commentary – there’s no chatting over arias, for instance.

"They have a smart phone, they want to know more about what they're watching, and it gives them a vehicle to do that"

“You’re just getting the essentials through your earphones or ear bud and on your screen,” she said. (The app is coordinated with the live performance by a real person, sometimes Bonnewell herself, activating each comment at the appropriate moment.)

The app, which is free to download, won converts including Sclabassi, who tested it at a dress rehearsal for “La Boheme.” It’s an opera he’d seen more times than he could remember -- “You lose count after 10” – but he said he actually learned new things about the show.

“It didn’t interfere with the musicality of the performance at all,” said Sclabassi. “You got a lot of background information that you wouldn’t normally get.”

For “Don Giovanni,” another twist was to supplement Bonnewell’s “Insider’s Guide” with a separate “Director’s Track” written and voiced by stage director Kristine McIntyre, who reimagined Mozart’s 1787 classic as a film noir, with 1950s costumes and the dramatic lighting that typifies that cinematic genre.

Users were free to toggle between the two, and even to turn the audio off and just read the text. Bonnewell’s observations of the opera included how the manipulative Don Giovanni repeatedly steals other character’s melodies for his own purposes; McIntyre emphasized the film references in particular scenes, like the 1947 Robert Mitchum classic “Out of the Past.”

Live Note is the latest step in opera’s decades-old struggle for audiences. In its 19th-century European heyday, opera was a mass entertainment, with a carnivalesque atmosphere that found audiences talking, eating and even gambling during performances. The stricter behavioral codes that came into force by the late 1800s had a lot to do with opera's reputation becoming increasingly elitist, said Hahn.

Pittsburgh Opera, one of the oldest American companies, was founded in 1939, by which time the core operatic repertoire was established. To this day, a handful of composers – Mozart, Verdi, Puccini – and 15 or 20 masterworks, mostly sung in Italian or German (“Tosca,” “La Traviata,” “The Magic Flute”), dominate seasons around the world.

For Hahn, reactions like Sclabassi’s initial resistance to Live Note hearken to the introduction of projections of translated lyrics above the stage. “Surtitles” debuted in 1983, at New York City Opera. Hahn was then working at San Francisco Opera. “The majority of audiences thought it was a terrible idea,” he said. Seasoned audiences were insulted at the suggestion they needed help to follow the action. “People cancelled their subscriptions, and they wrote angry letters and stopped donating,” he said.

But within a few years, most companies were using supertitles, and today opera is almost unthinkable without them. Hahn said the innovation boosted attendance; Marc Skorka, who heads Opera America, said that the opera audience grew through the mid-’90s or so.

Despite the shocking 2013 collapse of the 70-year-old New York City Opera, dozens of companies continue to do their work. Pittsburgh Opera, for instance, saw attendance rise last season by 9 percent, to about 28,000.

But like most nonprofit arts groups, opera troupes rely on donations for more than half their revenue, and many see their base of season-subscribers dwindling. Observers including long-time Wall Street Journal opera critic Heidi Waleson argue that the medium must reinvent itself to survive, perhaps even moving away from the model of big classic (and typically three-hour-long) shows in fancy concert halls like the Benedum Center.

U.S. opera companies have tried things like producing new operas inspired by their communities; doing weeks-long festivals instead of months-long seasons; and using nontraditional venues. In her 2018 book “Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America,” Waleson cites Opera Philadelphia’s O17 festival, which drew a younger and more diverse audience with mostly new programming (though some traditional works were mixed in).

“Giant opera houses were built for another age; so were American opera companies, with their constant repetitions of those canonical works of the past,” she wrote.

Pittsburgh Opera does perform a couple contemporary operas each season.  (They’re typically well under three hours, and staged mostly in the Opera’s Strip District headquarters, which has a fraction of the Benedum’s 2,800 seats.) The company offers seats for as little as $14, and holds free, informal, Brown Bag lunch-hour concerts throughout the year.

Other opera companies in Pittsburgh include Pittsburgh Festival Opera, which several years ago changed from a seasonal format to an annual month-long festival.

But Skorka, long-time head of Opera America, says there is no single formula for success. “What we hope is that every opera company in its city figures out what is sustainable for itself,” he said.

Like Skorka, some experts think technology like Live Note is a good path.

“This seems to be a really great way of attracting and making audiences who don’t have that background feel much more comfortable in the experience,” said Brett Crawford, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who runs the school’s arts management and technology lab. “I think the Live Note solution … is really meeting the needs of a digitally interested audience. They have a smart phone, they want to know more about what they’re watching, and it gives them a vehicle to do that.”

“Live note can be a participant in what is a broader change in the field, where you’re still seeing a ‘Don Giovanni,’ but there may be something with technology,” Crawford added. “Or maybe it’s performed in a different location. Or new works are done in the same cycle as some of the traditional works. So audience members are able to experience the fact that opera is anything but an old art form, it’s actually a living art form.”

Hahn said Pittsburgh Opera expects adoption of Live Note to be gradual, and to top out at perhaps 10 to 20 percent of the audience. At Saturday night’s season-opener, Opera spokesperson Chris Cox reported 84 visitors chose to let Live Note guide them through “Don Giovanni” -- about 6 percent of that night's audience.

One user was Eveline Young, who said she attends a couple operas a year. When she first activated the app, she used the Director’s Track, but without realizing that the production was a film noir homage.

The app “was talking about things being ‘black and white,’ and I couldn’t figure out what was black and white here, and it had nothing to do with the opera,” she said. “That was very distracting for me, and after a while I just turned it off because I couldn’t focus on listening to the music. I was concentrating more on reading what they were trying to tell me.”

A friend with whom she attended the show, who was blogging about Live Note, said she had the same problem.

Of course, as Pittsburgh Opera acknowledges, Live Note might not be for everyone. But it will still be available for the foreseeable future, starting with the final two performances of “Don Giovanni,” Friday and Sunday.

WESA receives funding from Pittsburgh Opera.