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History of Media Technology
and Opera

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Science, Technology, and Business Division
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Photo: a man standing behind a machine with a very large horn.  He is holding up a cylinder and is making a quiet sign with his finger to his lips Metropolitan Opera librarian Lionel Mapleson making cylinder recordings backstage at the Metropolitan Opera in 1901.  From the Metropolitan Opera Archives.


In this context, media are the means of distribution and presentation of entertainment, news, and other forms of information. Their technology includes cables, moving-image screens, headphones, broadcast transmitters, satellites, and such forms of storage as discs and film.

Opera is a form of sung theater in which the music is of great importance. Latin for "works," the word suggests the multiple art forms involved: acting, architecture, costume design, dance, lighting, orchestral music, singing, musical and stage direction, set design, storytelling, etc.


The oldest opera still regularly performed (Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo) was written in 1607, while Shakespeare was writing plays and shortly before Galileo’s Starry Messenger and the King James version of the Bible. In 1637 opera became a commercial enterprise, and its high costs were offset by large auditoriums, with acoustic ducts used to help deliver the sound; by 1673, the idea of extending the sound outside the auditorium was proposed. Opera houses had engineering departments from the start for dealing with stage machinery and special effects. By 1726, those effects included motion-image projection and, in 1849, the use of electric light (and an associated source of power).

By 1880, listeners connected by telephones turned opera into the first electronic home entertainment, leading to the first stereo sound transmission (1881) and the first consumer headphones (by 1888). Thomas Edison indicated in his 1888 patent caveat that the purpose of movies would be the delivery of opera. Opera provided early movies with known titles, stories, stars, and music. The earliest recording to sell a million copies was an opera aria, and opera was also the first commercial digital recording.

Long-distance sound transmission was used for an opera “broadcast” at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, where viewers could also watch synchronized-sound movies of opera singers. An opera singer’s radio broadcast in 1907 helped convince the U.S. Navy to adopt voice-capable wireless technology. An opera was televised by 1934, and from 1951 through 1974 U.S. commercial networks commissioned operas for television.

Today, opera continues to push media technology. Interactive 3D computer-graphics projection on irregular and moving screens is used onstage. Live high-definition opera with multi-language subtitles is the number-one alternative (non-movie) content in movie theaters worldwide. Academic and government laboratories are working on the technological challenges of “distributed” opera, with geographically separated performers. And the Internet is being used for collaborative and virtual-opera projects.


Barnes, Jennifer. Television opera: the fall of opera commissioned for television. Woodbridge, Suffolk, England, Rochester, NY, Boydell Press, 2003. 124 p.
   Bibliography: p. 107-118.
   ML1700.B13 2003 <PerfArtsRR>

Between opera and cinema. Edited by Jeongwon Joe and Rose Theresa. New York, Routledge, 2002. 244 p.
   Includes bibliographical references.
   ML2100.B47 2002 <PerfArts RR>

Citron, Marcia J. When opera meets film. Cambridge University Press, 2010. 324 p.
   Includes bibliographical references, filmography, webliography.
   PN1995.9.O64C58 2010

Fauser, Annegret. Musical encounters at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. Rochester, University of Rochester Press, c2005. 391 p.
   Bibliography: p. 353-374.
   ML270.4.F38 2005 <PerfArts RR)

Fawkes, Richard. Opera on film. London, Duckworth, 2000. 262 p.
   Bibliography: p. 238-239.
   Not in LC

Fryer, Paul. The opera singer and the silent film. Jefferson, NC, London, McFarland & Co. Pub., 2005. 304 p.
   Bibliography: p. 285-300.
   PN1995.9.O64F79 2005

Jackson, Paul. Saturday afternoons at the old Met: the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, 1931-1950. Portland, OR, Amadeus Press, c1992. 569 p.
   Includes bibliographical references.
   ML1711.8.N3 M434 1992 <PerfArtsRR>

Jackson, Paul. Sign-off for the old Met: the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, 1950-1966. Portland, OR, Amadeus Press, c1997. 644 p.
   Includes bibliographical references: p. 591-594.
   ML1711.8.N3 M4343 1997 <PerfArtsRR>

Jackson, Paul. Start-up at the new Met: The Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, 1966-1976. Portland, OR, Amadeus Press, c2006. 640 p.
   Includes bibliographical references: p. 601-606.
   ML1711.8.N3 M4345 2006 <PerfArtsRR>

Jensen, Amy Petersen. Theatre in a media culture: production, performance and perception since 1970. Jefferson, NC, McFarland, c2007. 221 p.
   Bibliography: p. 211-218.
   PN2041.M37J46 2007

A night in at the opera: media representations of opera. Edited by Jeremy Tambling. London, J. Libbey, c1994. 310 p.
   Includes bibliographical references.
   ML3858.N54 1994 <PerfArtsRR>

Schroeder, David P. Cinema's illusions, opera's allure: the operatic impulse in film. New York, Continuum, 2002. 372p.
   Bibliography: p. 341-355.
   PN1995.9.O64S37 2002 <MP/TV RR>

Somerset-Ward, Richard. The story of opera. New York, Abrams, 1998. 304 p.
   Bibliography: p. 290-292.
   ML1700.S7 1998 <PerfArtsRR>

Wagner & cinema. Edited by Jeongwon Joe and Sander L. Gilman. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, c2010.
487 p.
   Includes bibliographical references, filmography: p. 441-455.
   ML410.W12W34 2010 <PerfArtsRR>

Wonderful inventions: motion pictures, broadcasting, and recorded sound at the Library of Congress. Edited by Iris Newsom, with an introduction by Erik Barnouw. Washington, The Library, 1985. 384 p., + 2 sound discs.
   PN1994.W62 1985

Wlaschin, Ken. Encyclopedia of opera on screen: a guide to more than 100 years of opera films, videos, and DVDs. New Haven, Yale University Press, c2004. 872 p.
   ML102.O6W55 2004 <PerfArts RR>


Kersten, Fred. Baroque Twins: Science and Opera. In Essays in Memory of Aron Gurwitsch, edited by Lester Embree. Pittsburgh, Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology, Washington,University Press of America, 1984. 562 p.
   Includes bibliographies.
   B829.5.E77 1984

Siefert, Marsha. For the Audience at Home: The Early Recording Industry and the Marketing of Musical Taste, in Audiencemaking: How the Media Create the Audience. Edited by James S. Ettema & David Charles Whitney, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications, 1994. (Sage annual reviews of communication research, v. 22)
   Includes bibliographical references.
   P96.A83 A95 1994

Norman, Bruce. Television Comes to London. In Here’s looking at you: the story of British television, 1908-1939. London, British Broadcasting Corp., Royal Television Society, 1984.
224 p.
   Bibliography: p. 218.
   PN1992.3.G7N67 1984

MdPherson, Jim. Before the Met: The Pioneer Days of Radio Opera. In Opera Quarterly. Chapel Hill, NC, University of North Carolina Press. v. 16, nos. 1-3, 2000.
   Part I, “An Overview,” Part II, “The NBC National Grand Opera Company,” Part III, “Cesare Sodaro, the Music Man.”
   ML1699.O65 <PerfArtsRR>

Schubin, Mark. What’s Opera? Selling Out Cinemas Worldwide with HD. In Videography, v. 32, no. 1, April 2007: 12-20.
   TK6630.A1V53 <MP/TV RR>

Wedel, Michael. Messter’s ‘Silent’ Heirs: Sync Systems of the German Music Film 1914- 1929. In Film history, v. 11, no. 4, 1999: 464-476.


Beardsley, Roger and Daniel Leech-Wilkinson. A brief history of recording to ca. 1950. Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music, 2009.
   Online:, accessed Sept. 29, 2011.

Schubin Cafe.

Schubin, Mark. History of alternative content. In The EDCF guide to alternative content in cinema. European Digital Cinema Forum, 2008.

A black and white drawing showing the path of wires, coils, etc.
Wiring diagram for transmission of stereo sound from the
Paris Opera to the International Electricity Congress in 1881. 
From "The Telephone at the Paris Opera," Scientific American, December 31, 1881.

Location Codes for Items in the Library of Congress Reference Collections
><PerfArtsRR> Performing Arts & Recorded Sound Reading Room, Madison Building
<MP/TV RR>  Motion Picture & Television Reading Room, Madison Building

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   February 24, 2017
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