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'Missing Flutes' Spark Controversy Over 'Magic Flute' Production Mounted at City Tech

Smith (left) with assistant music director Steve Jarvey at the Sinfonia's controls during a rehearsal.

Smith (left) with assistant music director Steve Jarvey at the Sinfonia's controls during a rehearsal.

Pamina Janina Burnett

Janina Burnett in the role of Pamina.

Entertainment Technology student Shawna Cathay shown programming sound effects computer.

Entertainment Technology student Shawna Cathay shown programming sound effects computer.

After all that had happened in the week preceding The Opera Company of Brooklyn's one-night performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute on August 9 in New York City College of Technology's newly outfitted Voorhees Theatre, one could easily imagine that many of the company's patrons would have stayed away. But just the opposite happened.

The Opera Company of Brooklyn founder and principal conductor Jay D. Meetze's fantastical adaptation of Magic Flute, which he set in a future time, both played to a capacity audience and was, itself, nothing short of magical. The spell was cast, in part, through the skilled efforts of City Tech Entertainment Technology Program students and faculty, who provided the sets, lighting, projections and other technical work essential to any notable production.

In the absence of live musicians, the music was provided through orchestra simulation technologies (more popularly known as "virtual orchestration"), courtesy of Fred Bianchi and David Smith of Realtime Music Solutions, LLC, pioneers in the development of virtual orchestration. Smith is director of the College's Entertainment Technology Program, one of the most comprehensive such training programs in the country. He provided his firm's Sinfonia® system at no charge.

The week preceding the production brought a media frenzy of some proportions, as two members of The Opera Company of Brooklyn's Board of Artistic Trustees resigned and one cast member dropped out in protest over not having been told about the use of a virtual orchestra or for fear of being blackballed. The musicians' union joined in the fray, voicing strong opposition to the replacement of orchestral musicians by computerized electronic musical accompaniment.

A similar ruckus arose earlier this year during a much publicized contract dispute and subsequent strike that briefly shut down Broadway. During the strike, producers were prepared to replace live musicians with virtual orchestras had not singers, dancers and other performers refused to cross picket lines. The settlement that emerged limited the
extent to which shows could replace live musicians with virtual orchestra technology.

At the Magic Flute performance in Brooklyn, audience members were of varying opinions. Of those who commented and were aware of the week's events, some said they were there out of curiosity about the new technology, while most indicated they came because their loyalty to the fledgling opera company outweighed any preference for live musicians. Others, while voicing strong support for keeping live musicians in the orchestra pit as much as possible, said they believed that the virtual orchestra had its place in the future of musical productions.

"If it makes it possible for people in more remote places without access to live musicians or unable to afford them to experience the pleasures of musical theatre," said one, "so be it. That's preferable to nothing at all."

"I'm all for people working," said another, "and there are so many people out of work today. But the virtual orchestra is a reality and no doubt here to stay. I believe there's room for both live musicians and the electronic variety. Both have a place and the latter is finding its niche."

"I'm here tonight," said another opera goer, "because I want to hear for myself what a virtual orchestra sounds like. I have trouble imagining that computers can do what live musicians can do, but I want to give it a listen."

At the end of the performance, the audience was mainly all smiles and the reaction to the production was a highly favorable one. "At first, I could tell a difference in the quality of the sound," one patron said, "but then, as time went by, I was so caught up in the overall excellence of the production that I completely forgot that virtual music had replaced real musicians."

This was the first of the company's productions to utilize virtual orchestration. In welcoming the audience at the start of the show, conductor Meetze expressed appreciation to City Tech and its Entertainment Technology Program for making the performance possible after the company was unable to secure the services of live musicians. "We were committed to the idea that the show must go on," he said, adding that the season's 10 productions had been successfully staged "on a zero budget." This is possible because virtually (no pun intended) all singers, musicians, behind-the-scenes technical and front-of-the-house people typically volunteer their services to the company. Meetze noted that a "piano accompaniment" would have been the only other alternative to a live orchestra.

City Tech had provided use of Voorhees Theatre and the work performed by entertainment technology students and faculty on a gratis basis as a community service and to show support for efforts to solidly establish an opera company in Brooklyn.

"Magic Flute provided students with the opportunity to work with and learn from this emerging technology," said Smith, "and we are grateful to The Opera Company of Brooklyn and its supporters for that opportunity." This was the first time the students had the chance to work with the technology's latest software capabilities that allow for the integration of lighting and projection cues so that all are controlled by the virtual orchestra.

Smith, together with Bianchi, has been researching and developing virtual orchestration for the past 15 years. The two have taken applications of the technology to venues as diverse as the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and its 1989 production of The Wizard of Oz and the Kentucky Opera Company's 1995/1996 production of Hansel and Gretel. At a Telecom '99 production in Switzerland, Smith and several of his students, in conjunction with Lucent Technologies, helped stage a production which utilized a 350-loudspeaker system.

With both extra campus security and the NYPD on hand, a promised demonstration by musicians and their supporters outside Voorhees Hall failed to materialize. "Nobody showed up," said a cheery policewoman who confessed a special affinity for the opera thanks to her mother. "They were afraid to come, I guess," she added wryly. "They must have heard I was here."

The performance itself went off without an apparent hitch with Meetze conducting, assistant conductor Stephen Jarvis up front at a keyboard manipulating the orchestral playback, and Smith at a second control panel in the back of theater adjusting the volume.

Meetze also credits Enrique Abdala for his superb direction and staging. "Without his input we would not have had such a wonderful conceptualization and vibrant performance," he said. "His talent and energy helped us garner much of the favorable reviews."

"Mr. Smith and his partners have achieved some impressive results," wrote opera reviewer Jeremy Eichler in the New York Times. "The most noteworthy aspect of the system is the way that the programmed elements of pitch and rhythm can be substantially manipulated in live performance to accommodate the demands of phrasing and rubato. Most of the performance did not have a mechanized rigidity to it. That alone is quite an accomplishment." But what Eichler thought was absent were "the rich timbers and natural acoustic resonances" as well as "a real sense of blending" that a live orchestra produces.

The singers -- mainly younger, rising operatic talent -- were outstanding in both voice and action. The costuming was exquisitely expressive and a giant rear-view projection screen at the back of the stage provided all the visuals needed to effectively set the scene and mood.

In what amounts to very good news for The Opera Company of Brooklyn and the future of opera in the borough, a majority of the audience seemed made up of opera fans under 30. And when all was sang and done, their response suggested that it had been a wonderful night at the opera.

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