I celebrated AV Week as soon as the annual festival of all things audiovisual began, on Monday, October 18, when I was privileged enough to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Utah Opera's production of La Bohème. Salt Lake City's own Listen Technologies hosted the event, and that seemed fitting, given the fact that assistive listening systems are just about the only technology one will find in an opera house, besides the projected supertitles and the occasional on-stage microphone for backstage monitoring. Opera enthusiasts and performers usually frown upon the use of sound reinforcement, and of course the singers don't really need any help projecting their voices in the acoustically ideal venue of Salt Lake City's ornate Capitol Theater.
La Bohème opened just a couple of days before we wandered backstage to find out just how technology fits into the traditional sensibilities of opera. Michelle Peterson, company manager of the Utah Opera, began the tour with the declaration that in 400 years of history, the technology which benefitted opera the most was the addition of supertitles to theaters. "Like subtitles for a foreign film," Peterson explained, supertitles improved the accessibility of an art form where works are performed in their original language, most often Italian.
But the supertitles aren't just a "set it and forget it" technology. Anything can happen with a live performance, so a musician follows the score off-stage and makes adjustments to the delivery of the supertitles according to the tempo of the conductor. "If the conductor is coming in after an all-nighter, or maybe he's just had way too much caffeine, that could affect the performance," Peterson joked. "So the technology has to be flexible."
The Utah Opera was founded in 1978, and merged with the Utah Symphony in 2002. The symphony is one of very few U.S. orchestras which maintain a 52-week schedule, a fact which reflects Salt Lake City's dedication to the arts.
The Listen Technologies assistive listening system which is installed at the Capitol Theater can also transmit audio descriptions for the visually impaired. The Utah Opera also provides braille translations for each performance, and makes these available in the Utah State Library for the Blind and Disabled before the show opens.
Stage Manager Jill Zakrzewski, who like many others in the cast came in from New York City for the production, arrived backstage just in time to be cornered by a group of 20-some AV Week tour participants who wanted to know how she uses technology for her job. "I couldn't do everything I do without AV," she asserted. "I communicate with my light board operator, my conductor, and my cast via headset and a paging system." She pointed out a cluster of monitors that provide her with a stage view and also a video feed of the conductor in the pit, both of which help her with cues.
There may be a day when more AV technology joins the lighting, fly systems, and monitoring systems in use at the Capitol Theater today. The Utah Opera is increasing its use of projection for scenery, and in a somewhat unusual use of technology, a remote-controlled dancing broom was used in a production of Peter Pan. " We're just so thrilled whenever we get the chance to use technology in our productions," Peterson enthused. Maybe it's time you paid a visit to your local opera house.
Watch a video of Listen Technologies' Utah Opera tour here.