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Live streaming – Victorian style

15 September 2020

There’s nothing like the thrill of experiencing live performance at the theatre, but in these unprecedented times many of us have been making the most of opportunities to watch singers, instrumentalists and dancers performing on livestreams from across the globe. As innovative and futuristic as this may seem, the world was introduced to livestreaming almost 150 years ago. Before smartphones and applications such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Periscope, there was the théâtrophone.

In 1881 Paris was hosting the first International Exposition of Electricity at the Palais de l'Industrie on the Champs-Élysées. The Expo created a buzz, with people flocking to the City of Light to see the wonders of electricity, from Edison’s recently invented light bulb to Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. The théâtrophone was invented by Clément Ader, who is remembered primarily for his work in aviation and as a pioneer in the sport of cycling in France. According to the New Scientist, his invention was the first-ever broadcast of stereo sound. Visitors could pick up the théâtrophone and hear a live performance from the Paris Opéra, two miles away.

The théâtrophone, and similar services, were adopted by high society across Europe. The Belle Époque pop artist Jules Chéret immortalised the théâtrophone in a lithograph featuring a woman in a yellow dress, smiling as she listened to a performance. Behind her a queue of other customers waiting for a turn recedes into the shadowy distance. Pubs cashed in on the craze, charging people to listen to plays to kick off a day of celebration, the precursor to bars showing televised sporting matches today. In the UK groups of high society ladies and gentlemen would gather in parlours to experience live music, and even Queen Victoria had a subscription! Another of the théâtrophone’s most famous enthusiasts was Marcel Proust.

According to William C Carter’s Biography: ‘Proust kept the Théâtrophone right beside his bed, and every evening when that opera was on (Pelléas et Mélisande), he placed his ear next to the black trumpet and drank in Debussy’s music.’

In 1913, the Théâtrophone company transmitted the Paris Opéra’s Faust direct to Electrophone subscribers across the Channel while the British company reciprocated with Tosca excerpts from Covent Garden. Before long, broadcasts of complete operas and opera highlight concerts were being relayed across America too, some of them introduced by a 25-year-old singer named Milton Cross, later to become famous as presenter of the Met broadcasts. The first full-length, live opera broadcast from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, was Hänsel und Gretel on Christmas Day, 1931. Now the longest-running classical music series in American broadcast history, New York’s Metropolitan Opera Radio Broadcasts have brought opera into millions of homes.

The New York Metropolitan Opera also brought opera firmly into the 21st century. In 2006/2007 they initiated the live, HD transmission of Met performances directly on to the screens of movie theatres in North America and Europe and their lead was followed by other opera companies, including San Francisco Opera, Milan’s La Scala and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Earlier this month the Royal Opera House announced its Autumn/Winter 2020 Cinema Season, including Manon Lescaut and Macbeth which will be broadcast across the globe later this year. Until then there’s still plenty of time to watch our 2017 production of Frank Martin’s Le Vin herbé on OperaVision.