Will mobile devices replace binoculars at the opera?

WASHINGTON — As the lights dimmed Friday night at Wolf Trap theater in Vienna, Virginia, the mobile devices lit up. An entire section of the lawn was aglow in smartphones and tablets, their owners anxiously waiting for the action to start.

But that evening’s big performance wasn’t on the stage. It was the supertitles — or subtitles — that were beamed onto the lap of anyone using the MobiTxt wireless network, courtesy of New Mexico- based hardware and software company Figaro Systems.

The new technology had only been tested once before in a significantly smaller venue that seated only 100 patrons. Friday’s experiment during “Carmen” was the first test in a venue as large as Wolf Trap, which has a 7,000-person capacity.

“This allows us to put the titles directly into the patrons’ hand,” says Wolf Trap CEO Arvind Manocha. “This is particularly useful because we’re not a typical opera theater.”

Indeed, most opera houses require wearing semi-formal attire, leaving your wine in the lobby and bringing binoculars to see even a hint of the performance onstage (unless you’re sitting in the orchestra or balcony sections.)

At Wolf Trap, patrons bring their own food and beverages, and nestle close to their friends and even strangers on picnic blankets and lawn chairs.

Friday night, attendees were especially chatty as they eagerly logged onto the MobiTxt network and waited for Carmen to take the stage.

The first 10 minutes or so were flawless, but then the mobile devices went dark.

“It keeps going in and out,” says Greg Hamel. “We have to keep rebooting.”

His wife was no less annoyed with the experience.

“It’s distracting,” says Judy Hamel.

Several attendees tried to use the network via smartphone and then tablet, but the network remained dark for about 15 minutes. Some people put down their devices and tried to enjoy the show without the added luxury of supertitles. Others wondered if perhaps the network was overwhelmed by so many users, and kept trying to log on and off in hopes that something would change.

And some patrons got angry.

“I had a hard time seeing the stage down there, so I was looking forward to using [the network], but it just kept lagging and lagging. Eventually, we just gave up,” says Betsy McDevitt. “It’s too bad.”

“It wasn’t a great experience,” adds her friend, Renee Bogart.

Wolf Trap says about 800 attendees tried to use the technology and became “a victim of [its] own success,” says opera director Kim Witman.

“The amount of usage pushed us a little beyond [the limits],” she says.

But patrons who opted for using Google Glass instead of a smartphone or tablet had an easier time with the signal.

“Glass is really the beginning of a technological development that will make supertitles less clunky and [more] easy to integrate,” Witman says.

Google Glass was also used Friday night by technology journalist and opera buff David Pogue, who was disguised as an extra onstage. The images he captured were later uploaded to Facebook and YouTube, giving fans a close-up look at one of opera’s most iconic productions.

See one of his videos below:

While some might balk at the idea of introducing smartphones and iPads to the opera experience, Manocha sees the integration of these technologies as part of a natural evolution.

“Years from now I’m sure we will look back at this [experiment] and think, ‘how quaint,'” he says.

“There’s no doubt that, like in other parts of our lives and society, technology allows for things to be done in a different manner — sometimes better, sometimes not. It’s an extension of creativity.”

See more images from “Carmen” via Google Glass on Facebook and Google Plus.

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