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Home » Organizing » Planned Opera with “Virtual” Orchestra Sparks Online Cultural Revolution

Planned Opera with “Virtual” Orchestra Sparks Online Cultural Revolution


by Michael Manley, AFM Touring/Theatre/Booking Division Director and Assistant to the President 

Throughout his career and long after, composer Richard Wagner’s works have courted controversy—for their outsized scale, their uncomfortable politics, and for the Herculean demands they place on singers and musicians. His crowning achievement: a four-opera cycle, nearly 17 hours all told, telling one epic myth of Gods and monsters, dragons, and dwarves. Collectively known as The Ring Cycle, these demanding works redefined the role of the orchestra, giving as much weight and importance to instrumental interludes as to the sung text.

Wagner’s orchestra for The Ring operas is not only massive—numbering more than 100 players at times—but required the invention of new instruments, such as the “Wagner” tuba, as well as a custom-built opera house to present his singular vision.

In June, Wagner’s Ring courted a different kind of controversy: an organization called “The Hartford Wagner Festival” planned to side-step a major challenge to staging Wagner’s daunting Ring. They would simply replace the entire orchestra with a “digital orchestra,” made up of sampled sounds of freelance Vienna musicians. When news of this got out on Facebook, the result was something like a multi-car pile-up at the intersection of art and technology. It was a prime example of the power of social media to organize and mobilize people around shared passions and ideas.

What became a viral chorus of dissent began with a simple post. An opera singer, let’s call her “patient zero,” updated her Facebook status with a link to something called The Hartford Wagner Festival. “This sounds like an interesting opportunity for young singers,” she noted, in what was a fairly general and neutral status update.

Local 9-535 (Boston, MA) tubist Michael Stephan saw the post in his news feed. He clicked the link to the festival’s site, and noticed they had a Facebook page. Both detailed the festival’s plan to use a “digital orchestra” in place of musicians. Within hours, Stephan noticed the festival’s Facebook page had five positive reviews and 95 negative reviews.

Stephan decided to post a link and message on his own Facebook page. “My goal was not to hurt the Hartford Wagner Festival’s business,” he noted, “just to share information and inform others. I had my own opinion, but didn’t try to force it on others.”  Stephan had a feeling the response would be somewhat negative, but he had no idea how negative it would get.

Within five days of his initial post on the subject, the festival’s Facebook page was inundated with hundreds of negative responses.

As the post was shared and seen among the musician community of Facebook, the Hartford Wagner Festival’s own Facebook page became an echo chamber of dissent. It wasn’t so much the technology itself that musicians were opposed to—experiments with electronic versions of classical music go back to Wendy Carlos and Isao Tomita in the ’70s and ’80s—it was that the founder of the Hartford Wagner Festival, Charles M. Goldstein, claimed his sampled “digital orchestra” was as good, or better, than live musicians.

Soon the negative comments began disappearing from the Hartford Wagner Festival’s Facebook page—and their authors of comments had been banned. That’s when Local 15-286 (Toledo, OH) member Tony Cleeton decided to create his own page, the open group “Musicians Against the Hartford Wagner Festival.” The page, launched June 6, now has 559 members. Cleeton’s page was born out of the belief that free speech, pro and con, should flourish online. “The Hartford Wagner Festival’s false advertising really annoyed me,” Cleeton states, citing references to the production as a “live performance,” claims that “The Vienna Philharmonic” was the orchestra playing, and the hefty $99 ticket price, as key reasons he spoke out.

In an interesting twist, savvy Facebook users quickly discovered that, while page comments and commentators could be deleted by page administrators, page reviews are there to stay. A visit to the Hartford Wagner Festival’s Facebook page reveals a study in terse, outraged one-star reviews—418 of them, at this writing.

The online outcry was so intense that mainstream media began picking up on the story. The New York Times wrote about the controversy, which was acquiring the dramatic twists and turns worthy of an opera. 

Technology is no stranger to the arts, and many users noted that a “digital orchestra” could be useful as a study tool for singers learning operatic roles, or an interesting experiment in electronic music-making. The Hartford Wagner Festival did something else: they called their sampled orchestra the equivalent of a live orchestra, and they planned to sell tickets to a so-called professional production. That crossed a line for many, and the responses to the Hartford Wagner Festival’s plan were particularly passionate and personal. Some works simply cannot be touched, and The Ring, as it is known, is sacred. 

Why was there such a sense of personal outrage on this issue? Classical musicians, especially brass players, spend years studying passages from Wagner’s Ring operas. Countless hours are spent mastering the subtleties of tone, technique, and phrasing necessary to, not only perform these masterworks, but to win auditions with professional symphony, opera, and ballet orchestras throughout the world. These pieces are in their blood.

The iconic horn call of hero Siegfried, which takes place during the opera of the same name, is a knuckle-whitening test for every French horn player—three minutes of a tightrope walk through a fireworks display, played entirely solo from the stage, ending with a sprint to the Mount Everest of the horn’s register: a fortissimo high concert “F.” It is the most thrilling and beloved of French horn passages—the King Lear and Great Gatsby of horn solos—and the thought of having it played by a machine was ludicrous and infuriating to the horn community. It was no surprise that Facebook’s “Horn People” page brayed with a collective, international elephant call of fury.

Several voices were conspicuous in their absence. In particular, Opera America, “the national service organization for Opera,” has gone strangely silent (e-mail and phone requests to Opera America for comment on the Hartford Wagner Festival went unanswered). And while Local 400 (Hartford-New Haven, CT) President Joe Messina was quoted in The New York Times story, the AFM largely remained on the sidelines.

It was ironic, then, that a press release issued by The Hartford Wagner Festival—announcing the cancellation of their planned 2014 production—blamed the AFM exclusively for their woes. In this case, the AFM did not rally the troops, because the troops rallied themselves; the revolution was blogged, liked, posted and shared.

The intersection of art and technology is always controversial, and is a reality of modern life. Musicians are therefore challenged to constantly remind audiences, donors, producers, and fellow artists that music is a human art.

“Are we sound producers or musicians?” asks Stephan.  “We spend our lives perfecting our ability to change lives. Computers can’t yet do that.”

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