Opera Goes to the Tweets

London's world-famous Royal Opera House tries to lower its brow

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    Westminster Abbey's online editor Imogen Levy uses the micro blog site, Twitter during rehearsals ahead of the Commonwealth Observance. The social networking site will soon take over the Royal Opera.

    It probably won't be "Madame Butterfly," but it should be fun.

    In an effort to get more people involved with opera, which sometimes suffers from an elitist, highbrow reputation, London's world-famous Royal Opera House is turning away -- temporarily -- from classic talents like Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini and giving the composer's pen to ... just about anybody.

    All you need to contribute is a computer or a mobile phone and an account on Twitter, the popular San Francisco-based micro-blogging site that is open to all, as long as it's not down or being hacked by international terrorists.

    It's a very democratic approach -- the plot will be worked out by twitterers contributing one line at a time, then put to music by professionals -- but some harbor doubts about the quality of the work that will be performed in September.

    "It's a gimmick, but not a malign gimmick" London music critic Norman Lebrecht said. "I wouldn't put too high hopes on it. It won't produce great opera."

    He said the use of Internet technology to concoct a collective work of art is not new -- but that success stories have been very rare.

    "In the earlier days of the Internet there were a number of collaborative novels, including some started by major writers, and none of them worked," he said.

    But, comedian Conan O'Brien recently proved that tweets can be turned into a thing of art when he put former Gov. Sarah Palin's 140 character messages to her followers to music.


    Royal Opera House officials claim it will be the world's first "online opera story." Fans are contributing to the libretto line by line, their imaginations limited only by the Twitter format, which allows a maximum of 140 characters to be posted at a time.

    Alison Duthie, director of ROH2, the Royal Opera House's contemporary program, said the use of Twitter is part of a wider effort to get more people interested in the art form.

    "We wanted to engage with audiences in the creation of an opera," she said. "We felt it would be a good way to be interactive with the public and with audiences. We wanted to explore how to get people involved at a creative level."

    The plot that is taking shape is surreal and, at the same time, very dramatic, she said.

    "At the end of act 1, scene 1, our hero had been kidnapped by a flock of birds and is in a tower awaiting rescue," Duthie said. "That feels extremely operatic, people are really getting into the story line."

    There is also a talking cat.

    More than 350 people have contributed so far, with more signing on every day as word of the unusual project spreads.

    "It's the whole social networking thing," said Stuart Rutherford, a contributor. "Everybody wants to be involved in something together, even if it's in a small way. Hundreds of people will get involved and it's great to be able to say you took part."

    He said the use of Twitter could help make opera more popular with young people.

    "The Royal Opera House is saying 'We understand, we're not archaic,"' he said.

    Once the hundreds of amateur authors have sent in their input, known as tweets, the work will be shaped by professionals, including a director and two composers, Helen Porter and Mark Teipler.

    Then, several singers will be chosen and the resulting "mini-operas" will be performed during a Royal Opera House festival in September.

    Neil Fisher, classical music editor of The Times newspaper, said he is slightly cynical about the project because it seems to be a way for the Royal Opera House to get "some easy publicity" before the start of the new season.

    But he conceded it could be effective at a time when elitism and high ticket prices are dampening enthusiasm for opera.

    "If it gets people into opera who wouldn't otherwise have had the chance, that's great," he said.