SAN FRANCISCO — Opera and Twitter: Could any two vehicles for human expression be more diametrically opposed?
And yet they kind of go together, as I found out this week while live-tweeting the San Francisco Opera’s performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre, a four-and-half-hour epic noted for its ambitious staging, bravura solos, massively overwhelming orchestration and ladies with pointy Viking hats.
Yes, I was the annoying guy sitting amid a sea of evening wear in a T-shirt and sneakers, holding an iPhone as low as I could and trying to not to get kicked out by the ushers for violating the house “no electronic devices” policy.
You might think that Twitter and opera (not the browser) don’t work together. On the one hand, you’ve got epically long, rich visual and auditory feasts for the senses that require significant education to appreciate. On the other, you’ve got a text-only medium that restricts you to 140 characters, is free to use, and currently reaches more than 30 million people, who use it to broadcast such prosaic items as what they’re wearing, whether its raining or if Ronaldhino has just scored a goal.
On top of that, opera is, well, old. I think the medium was last popular in about 1895, whereas Twitter is very much a child of the 21st century’s always-on, internet-saturated lifestyle.
But if you treat opera as an event, it sort of makes sense to integrate it with Twitter. After all, people have live-tweeted Steve Jobs keynotes, ballgames, breaking news events and even births. Twitter is very well-suited to giving people a glimpse of something as it happens, adding a communal (and even global) dimension to real-time events. So why not opera?
On top of that, there’s a natural affinity between Wagner and geek culture, as former Wired.com reporter Alexis Madrigal and I realized when we first hatched the plan to live-tweet the opera. Wagner’s Ring cycle, of which Die Walküre is a part, is the original source for many geek-culture touchstones, from The Lord of the Rings to Dungeons & Dragons to Star Wars. Dwarves, giants, a magical ring that corrupts its owner while granting absolute power? A storyline that wrestles with big notions of human technology versus nature? Enormous, fire-breathing dragons? Wagner’s got everything a geek could want.
And did I mention the fog effects and the fire?
So it seemed somehow natural that I would try live-tweeting a Wagner opera. When the San Francisco Opera’s press office offered me a couple of tickets to the performance, I jumped at the chance. (I didn’t tell them about my plans to tweet the thing).
Based on the reaction I got from those who followed the event through my updates, it went pretty well. And, as far as I know, this is the first time anyone has ever tried to live-tweet an opera performance.
I tried to give a blow-by-blow account of what was happening onstage. Sometimes, that meant describing the scenery — a difficult task, given how impressive San Francisco’s new production of this opera was. It included abstract video intros to each act, visually rich sets, great costumes, fire, lightning, fog effects and, of course, world-class musical performance.
Now Wotan has to tell his daughter, the Valkyrie, that she has to go kill his son, Siegmund. That’s some harsh justice
There weren’t actually any ladies in Viking hats, by the way. This performance went with a more modern look, setting Valhalla in a kind of high-altitude, mid-1930s-style boardroom and putting the Valkyries in old-time aviator suits. It sounds a little contrived, but it actually worked well. At times I felt like I was watching Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, or maybe Hell’s Angels.
Valkyries parachuting in from the sky! Now that’s what i’m talkin about
Sometimes pacing was a challenge. Twenty minutes could easily go by without any significant plot points happening. Then, all at once, a bunch of characters would burst onto the stage, kill each other and reveal that the protagonist’s twin sister, with whom he is in love, is actually already pregnant by him. Try capturing all that in 140 characters or less.
More singing. Lots of trembling with ecstasy, etc
At the end of my almost five-hour marathon tweeting session, I doubt many were still following my Twitter report. And the next day, several people asked me how I’d managed not to get killed by my date for being an obnoxious boor. But many people also told me they enjoyed following along.
Some even said they might check out an opera themselves.
As for me, I might do it again. But I’m not sure: Those ushers looked kind of cranky.
My view of the whole opera, in 140-character segments from from my Twitter account, follows.
Live-Tweeting the Opera: The Twitter Transcript
Note: I’ve made some corrections of my more egregious typos in the transcript here. (You try spelling “Brünnhilde” or “Siegmund” on an iPhone screen, in the dark, with the phone held as low as possible and the screen brightness at minimum!)
Also, you’re not likely to get a very clear picture of the story from these tweets, I’ll admit. I was going for the flavor of the opera, and significant events, not a narrative. If you want to know what it’s all about, I recommend reading a good synopsis.
At the opera. I am so underdressed I probably don’t even register: gadget t-shirt, jeans, Chrome sneakers 6:41 PM Jun 30th
Orchestra tuning up. Crowd is quieting down. The lights dim. Uh oh: no electronic devices allowed! 7:05 PM Jun 30th
Fire! In front of a woodsy shack. And lightning. Siegmund arrives. He’s tired from running 7:10 PM Jun 30th
Sieglinde is coming out to help him. They don’t know they are bro & sis yet. UH OH I THINK SHE LIKES HIM 7:14 PM Jun 30th
She gives the dude a drink and he’s all, kthxbye 7:20 PM Jun 30th
Oh but wait! He’s back. And went inside with her. ‘my name is trouble’ he says. 7:22 PM Jun 30th
Uh oh! Sieglinde’s husband is back, and he’s got a gun. Also, deer heads & a black velvet painting on the wall. Wed Jun 30 19:24:39 2010
Husband is swilling beer & groping his wife while Siegmund tells his life story. It’s a long, sad story. Wed Jun 30 19:31:58 2010
Hunding says: you can stay in my house tonight, but I’ll kill you tomorrow. Wed Jun 30 19:38:49 2010
How’s Siegmund gonna defend himself with no sword?? Wed Jun 30 19:42:58 2010
O hey! There’s a sword stuck in that tree over there! Wed Jun 30 19:44:49 2010
Ok, this is weird: A brother-sister love song. Wed Jun 30 19:54:52 2010
More singing. Lots of trembling with ecstasy, etc Wed Jun 30 19:59:27 2010
Siegmund is going to pull the sword out of the stone. I mean, tree. Wed Jun 30 20:04:38 2010
He does it! The sky turns red, lightning flashes, & the tree floats up into the air. Now he has a sword Wed Jun 30 20:06:22 2010
… And a twin sister for a girlfriend! Ew! They kiss, roll around on the stage a bit, and act 1 ends Wed Jun 30 20:07:36 2010
Wine time! I mean, intermission Wed Jun 30 20:08:16 2010
Forgot to mention the cool Blair Witch style video intro at the beginning of act 1. Opera is HIP folks! Ok, 1990s hip, but that’s progress Wed Jun 30 20:31:35 2010
Act 2! Oh good: more Blair witch POV video while the orchestra plays Wed Jun 30 20:34:58 2010
Now we’ve gone from the country to a sort of Sky Captain executive boardroom thing. Wed Jun 30 20:37:16 2010
Here comes trouble: wotan’s wife fricka. She’s upset about the whole twins-lovers thing Wed Jun 30 20:42:50 2010
Bad news for Siegmund: Fricka has convinced Wotan to stop protecting his son Wed Jun 30 20:53:49 2010
Now Wotan has to tell his daughter, the Valkyrie, that she has to go kill his son, Siegmund. That’s some harsh justice Wed Jun 30 21:00:29 2010
Lots of exposition: there’s a Ring, it’s cursed, Wotan is locked into some long term CDOs that are now worthless. … Wed Jun 30 21:10:21 2010
Brunnhilde: I won’t do it! You love Siegmund! Wotan: you better do as I say! Wed Jun 30 21:20:44 2010
Now we’re back with the twin/lovers. They’re on the run, hiding out under a freeway overpass on an old car seat Wed Jun 30 21:26:28 2010
Brunnhilde appears now, with a bunch of slowly marching fallen soldiers. Your time is almost up, Siegmund Wed Jun 30 21:40:40 2010
Wait, Valhalla has wishmaidens? And bottomless drinks?? Wed Jun 30 21:41:31 2010
But no twin sister lovers, apparently Wed Jun 30 21:41:58 2010
Oh! Turns out Sieglinde’s pregnant!? Wed Jun 30 21:49:49 2010
Turns out that acting crazy in love is enough to turn a Valkyrie to your side, against her all powerful father Wed Jun 30 21:52:32 2010
Actual dogs just ran across the stage. Now: swordfight!! Wed Jun 30 21:56:43 2010
Wotan just came out of nowhere and smashed Siegmund’s sword. Then Hunding stabbed him, and our boy Siegmund is down Wed Jun 30 21:58:21 2010
Then Wotan offed Hunding with a hug and a sharp twist of his neck. Ice cold! Wed Jun 30 22:01:00 2010
One more act. Not sure the twitter machine will hold up but I’ll try… Wed Jun 30 22:07:21 2010
The Wagner dogs were probably the cutest thing about the opera so far. Wed Jun 30 22:28:14 2010
Act 3. Cue the “kill the wabbit” music Wed Jun 30 22:29:37 2010
Valkyries parachuting in from the sky! Now that’s what i’m talkin about Wed Jun 30 22:32:36 2010
Major fog effects + 8 sopranos on parachutes = crowd pleaser Wed Jun 30 22:36:06 2010
They’re all wearing old style flight suits & white aviator scarves btw Wed Jun 30 22:36:58 2010
The Valkyries are going to help hide Sieglinde from Wotan, who is *pissed* Wed Jun 30 22:48:20 2010
Wotan is demoting Brunnhilde to mortal. No more flying with the Valkyries Wed Jun 30 22:59:26 2010
Wotan just took away his daughter’s immortality and put her to sleep on a rock. He promised a wall of flames to protect her though Wed Jun 30 23:32:13 2010
Fire! Yes! Flames surround the stage, and more fog. It’s awesome Wed Jun 30 23:34:58 2010
And the curtain descends on a sleeping Brunnhilde surrounded by orange flames. That’s all folks! Wed Jun 30 23:38:04 2010
Headache from wine & lack of food. Also, exhausted. But the opera really was a blast. Hope you enjoyed the tweets. Good night! Thu Jul 1 00:33:23 2010