Digital Orchestra Stirs Up Controversy

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Shinn_the_orchestra_pitOpera can excite emotions and provoke passions…even before the curtain is raised. A recent proposal to stage the “Ring” cycle using a digital orchestra – not live musicians – resulted in a controversy befitting a Verdi libretto.

Epic Undertaking. Charles M. Goldstein, who founded the Hartford (Conn.) Wagner Festival, was inspired to stage the four epic operas in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle annually, joining Bayreuth, Germany, as the only site in the world to attempt such a massive undertaking. (Together, the four operas encompass 15 hours of performance time.)

Synthesized Sounds. There was no worry of over-taxing the pit orchestra because Goldstein didn’t plan to use one. Instead, he proposed harnessing a virtual ensemble synthesized from thousands of digital music samples he obtained from the Vienna Symphonic Library, which describes itself as “an innovative, research-driven music software and sample library.”

Real Anger. Some opera fans, musicians and union members protested, demanding a boycott of the Hartford festival and claiming a digitally sampled orchestra insulted the purity of opera, which eschews most amplification or electronic enhancements. Singers who had pledged involvement with the “Ring” project were targeted for criticism, including being labeled “traitors” in an e-mail purportedly from “musicians of the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra.”

“Ring” Postponed. The festival postponed the “Ring” cycle, citing “the vicious and coordinated attacks” that led to the resignation of several performers and the music director. The local union head denied any threats were made, replying that actually, Goldstein’s digitally sampled orchestra was “an attack on the art form.”

Fewer Musicians Working. Certainly professional musicians face a tougher job market today. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, private employment for “musical groups and artists” declined nearly 20% from 2003 to 2013, to roughly 34,000 people. Not surprisingly, the annual decline was greatest during 2009 – a 7.6% drop – as the Great Recession took hold.

Other Viewpoints. New York Times readers chimed in on the “Ring” story. One letter writer claimed “the virtual genie is not going back in the bottle” and cited “talkie” movies killing off movie theatre orchestras in the 1920s. This writer also suggested that theatrical productions be required to publicize their use of pre-recorded music, so “consumers can make an informed choice.” Another letter writer wonders if lip-synched arias are far behind.

With many opera companies struggling financially, we also wonder if a greater number of performances (with either real or virtual orchestras) across a wider geographic area may invigorate attendance, therefore benefiting more musicians through increased future demand.

Your Thoughts? Where does your own opinion fall on the spectrum – from outrage to enthusiasm – and why?

One response to “Digital Orchestra Stirs Up Controversy”

  1. Ernie Bott says:

    Like beer without alcohol. Looks the same may taste the same, doesn’t have the same effect. Live music rules.

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