** Update: Want to read more about the history of opera broadcasts? Mark Schubin (from the Metropolitan Opera's Media Department) has written a great piece covering the history of broadcasts, from the Met and elsewhere. We've given permission to post it here:
Radio pioneer Lee De Forest was an opera
lover. The May 1907 prospectus of his Radio Telephone Company said,
"It will soon be possible to distribute grand opera music from
transmitters placed on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House by a Radio
Telephone station on the roof to almost any dwelling in Greater New York and
vicinity." He hired opera singers to sing into his microphones and
also transmitted opera-music records, even from the Eiffel Tower.
He couldn't get Met general manager Giulio
Gatti-Casazza to agree to allow a live radio broadcast, however, until De
Forest pointed out that a stage microphone would also allow Gatti-Casazza to
hear from his office what was happening on stage. Finally, an
experimental broadcast was authorized.
On January 12, 1910, Acts II & III of Tosca were
sent by a transmitter at the Met, via an antenna strung between two masts on
the roof, to a handful of receiving stations in the New York area. The New York Times accurately
reported, "This will only be an experiment and perfect results are not
expected immediately." Those singing or talking into a microphone
offstage were heard much better than those singing on the stage. Memory
and imagination probably helped listeners.
Still, the world's first live opera
broadcast went fairly well. But, as is so often the case immediately
after a reasonably successful experiment, the idea was exploited.
Reporters were invited by the Dictograph Company, which provided the microphones,
to hear two operas broadcast the next day, Cavalleria Rusticana and I
Pagliacci, with superstars Emmy Destinn and Enrico Caruso.
The press invitation said the beautiful
voices would be "trapped
and magnified by the dictograph directly from the stage of the Metropolitan
Opera House, and borne by wireless Hertzian waves over the turbulent waters of
the sea to transcontinental and coastwise ships, and over the mountainous peaks
and undulating valleys of the country." In fact, on the 12th, there was
shipboard reception, on a vessel docked at a Manhattan pier. As for the peaks and valleys,
The Times had estimated a radius of perhaps 50 miles, given the low
height of the opera-house roof.
On the 12th, others respectfully refrained
from interfering with the broadcast. On the 13th, a report in Telephony
said, "deliberate and studied interference from the operator of
station of the United Wireless Company" caused "some
interruption." "But," according to The Times,
"the reporters could hear only a ticking which the operator finally
translated as follows, the person quoted being the interrupting operator: 'I
took a beer just now, and now I take my seat.'"
Oscar Hammerstein, whose Manhattan Opera
House competed with the Met, installed a wireless station in his new London
Opera House the next year. But it wasn't for broadcasting; it was for
selling tickets to "passengers in the great liners 500 miles out at
sea," according to The Times.
Want to know a little bit more about early
opera radio before the Metropolitan Opera's Saturday-afternoon series began in
1931? Read on.
Before the First Live Opera Radio
In 1876 (55 years after opera broadcasts
were predicted in The Repository of Arts), Alexander Graham Bell
patented the telephone (whether Antonio Meucci, a former stagehand at
Florence's Teatro della Pergola opera house, actually beat Bell to the punch in
1849 experiments as technical director at Havana's Teatro Tacon opera house is
a different issue). On March 22, The New York Times noted that “By
means of this remarkable instrument, a man can have the Italian opera, the
Federal Congress, and his favorite preacher laid on his own house.” In
fact, they raised the box-office concern that “No man who can sit in his own
study with his telephone by his side, and thus listen to the performance of an
opera at the Academy, will care to go to Fourteenth street and to spend the evening in a hot anti
crowded building. The following year, George du Maurier published a cartoon
in which a household selected among opera offerings delivered by wire.
In 1881, Clément Ader demonstrated the
world's first stereo transmission from the stage of the Paris Opéra. An
1882 book had a chapter on opera on TV Of opera without visuals, a
critic reported, "The telephone is a harsh judge." But
commercial Théâtrophone service followed, delivering operas in stereo to homes
beginning in 1890, the world's first electronic entertainment service for
homes. The idea soon spread across much of the world, and, in 1891, the
opening of the opera Le Mage in Paris was heard live in London.
The Théâtrophone used a coin-operated
business plan. Ader's Hungarian associate, Tivadar Puskás, chose a
monthly-subscription model for his version, which began in 1893. That
meant that the lines were available when operas weren't being transmitted, so
the newscast was invented to give subscribers something to listen to before
operas (and during intermissions). In 1930, the Hungarian service,
Telefon Hírmondó, had 91,079 subscribers in Budapest alone who got the opera each night, with
news reports during the intermission.
In 1900, at the Paris Exhibition, Horace
Short (like Ader, better known as an aircraft inventor) installed an
"auxeto-gramophone," a compressed-air-amplified record player, near
the top of the Eiffel Tower and acoustically broadcast recordings of arias by
stars of the Paris Opéra. The sounds could be heard throughout Paris, with no listening apparatus required.
In 1904, Professor Otto Nussbaumer of
the University of Graz in Austria sang into a microphone and was heard
wirelessly next door, possibly the first vocal music carried by radio.
The physics department head reportedly told him, "Your box works, but your
singing is awful."
Between the First Live Opera Broadcast and
the Start of the Met Saturday-Afternoon Series
In 1919, U.S. Navy transmitter NFF
broadcast live from the New Brunswick Opera House and was reportedly heard by a
ship 2,000 miles at sea. In Chicago, the Signal Corps aired opera records.
A 1919 proposal called for opera movies
to be shot & distributed and projected to the singers, whose voices would
be broadcast live to movie theaters to run in sync with the pictures. The
Met's first live cinema transmission (31 theaters in 27 cities) took place in
1952, with local TV stations having to agree to drop their network feeds so the
coaxial cable could be used for the opera. Today, the Met's Live in HD
reaches more than 1,000 cinemas in 42 countries via satellite.
In 1920, Nellie Melba sang into a
powerful transmitter at the Marconi factory in Chelmsford, England and was heard throughout Europe and even across the Atlantic. In fact, the transmission was so
powerful that it interfered with all others and was eventually shut down by the
authorities. The Melba transmission was recorded in Paris, possibly the first off-air sound
The same year, four medical students in Buenos Aires had planned a single radio transmission,
but, not wanting to be outdone by Marconi & Melba, changed it into an
entire season of live operas broadcast from Teatro Coliseo in Buenos Aires. The first, on August 27, was Parsifal.
In 1922, shortly before the Met
broadcast a Veteran's Day concert version of Aida from an armory, the
real-life son of the singer playing Mimi stepped in as her lover Rodolfo in an
amateur Salt Lake City Bohème broadcast after the tenor "got out of
line." An "elocutionist" described the action.
In a 1924 Boston broadcast of Il Trovatore, the
manager announced that the tenor couldn't continue after the second act and a
messenger would be sent to get Gaetano Tommasini, to replace him. Having
heard the announcement in his hotel room, Tommasini arrived before the
AT&T's WEAF (now WNBC) established a
National Grand Opera Company in 1925, when it began weekly condensed-opera
broadcasts. There was also a WEAF National Light Opera Company, both
later taken over by NBC (which also ran a television opera company for 16
The 1927 inaugural broadcast of what is
now CBS included a condensed version of Deems Taylor's opera The King'sHenchman.
A condensed version of African-American composer Harry Freeman's opera Voodoo
was broadcast in 1928 before being staged. And, in 1929, Cesare Sodero's Ombre
Russe became the first full opera to have its world premiere on radio (NBC)
before opening in an opera house. But the first opera commissioned (by
NBC) for radio (Charles Cadman's The Willow Tree) didn't premiere until
1932, and, in 1937, Louis Gruenberg's Green Mansions was the first
commissioned (by CBS) as a "non-visual opera."
In 1930, NBC carried a live broadcast of
part of Fidelio from the Dresden State Opera House in Germany. The schedule noted it would be
carried "atmospheric conditions permitting."
In 1931, the Met began its live network
opera broadcasts, which continue to this day, said to be the longest-running
series of live broadcasts (they were sponsored by the same company, best known
as Texaco, from 1940 through 2004, said to be the longest continuous
sponsorship in broadcast history). During the first broadcast,
commentator Deems Taylor described the action during orchestral interludes,
outraging opera purists, who called NBC, one woman saying she couldn't hear
what was going on because "some idiot keeps talking." A
telegram asked, "Is it possible to have Mr. Taylor punctuate his speech
with brilliant flashes of silence?" But Taylor told the audience two weeks later,
"We have received several thousand replies, of which fewer than 100 were
opposed to being told what was going on upon the stage."
Nevertheless, the Met later restricted commentary to periods when the house
lights were on.
And the rest --
live TV, cinema, subtitled, satellite, Internet, HD, and even 3-D opera -- is