A Night at The Opera. On Twitter.

Opera Philadelphia's experiment: Can art survive the age of social media?


Yes, I was one of the philistines who Tweeted during the opera Friday night. No, I don’t really have any regrets.

Opera Philadelphia selected me and a few other media types — Robin Bloom of WHYY among them — as well as a few other notable bloggers and tweeters from the area, to fill out a “social media section” in the balcony of Friday’s premiere of Ainadamar, a beautiful Spanish-language opera about the last days of the poet Federico Garcia Lora, killed at the outset of the Spanish civil war.

The pre-reaction to the Tweeting was about what you’d expect. Before I realized I’d be in the audience, I got to listen to my colleague Victor Fiorillo deliver a hilarious, profane rant against the idea. And Philly Mag itself on Friday ran Bryan Buttler’s criticism: “Philadelphia’s opera audiences deserve better,” he wrote. “The opera artists on stage and in the pit orchestra, many of whom have trained for decades to perfect their craft, deserve significantly better.”

Which, due respect: Nah.

Understand: Ainadamar isn’t some old composition that’s been performed, unchanged, for hundreds of years. It is literally a 21st century opera — it premiered in 2003 — and is presented with giant video screens instead of a traditional set. The singers wore mics (and there were speaker stacks at the sides of the stage) because the composer wanted us to hear their subtler expressions. The orchestra included a “laptopist” — really — to trigger various effects. Even its length is (metaphorically) Twitter-sized: The opera weighs in at just 80 minutes long.

Anybody distracted by a little modernity, then, is already coming to Ainadamar with lots of problems.

Besides which: I’ve been a tremendous fan of Opera Philadelphia’s efforts to reach beyond its core audiences. For the last several years, we’ve attended the opera’s season-opening simulcasts on Independence Mall — Nabucco this season, Carmen a few years ago — along with thousands of others. The company has also created great “flash mob” events around town, for YouTube consumption and general delight. Gimmick? Maybe. In each case, though, the judicious use of of technology has helped the opera grow new connections to the community. Not all such ideas will be winners, but I applaud the effort and spirit behind them.

Ironically: The experiment almost ended before it began. Opera Philly forgot to make sure that the balcony where we were sitting had a strong wifi link. It didn’t. Those of us who brought laptops or tablets ended up on our phones, praying the batteries would hold out for the whole opera.

My own Tweets were a mix of stolen fragments of lyrics (“He is an enemy of Spain! He is a faggot!”), reactions to the amazing flamenco dancers, and participation in the larger conversation of what was playing out before us.

Butler did get one thing clearly right about the problem of live-tweeting an opera, though. “We suspend our disbelief for three hours while we engage in the live performance,” he wrote. “It’s meant to be uninterrupted — if we break our suspended disbelief, all odds are off.”

As any journalist knows, observing and describing a thing is different from experiencing it. Pause to record a moment and the next can slide by only half-witnessed at best. So it is probably no coincidence that as the climax of the opera arrived — the last 20 minutes or so — our furious little bursts of thumb-typing seemed to slow to a collective trickle.

Somehow, though, I managed to Tweet the evening and, yes, find myself moved to tears as it happened. The story of the forces of darkness murdering the forces of beauty is not a new one; nor is the story of the way beauty persists in the face of persecution. Yet they are stories we need to hear and have made new for us. And we need to retell them, however we can. Ainadamar did its work beautifully; it wasn’t damaged by the Tweeters, I don’t think, but I’m not sure it needed us either. It simply succeeded.


Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.