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Twitter: now part of the landscape?

As Twitter becomes increasingly a part of the landscape, it doesn’t seem to occasion as much talk, or fear, or even activity as it used to. A year ago, the idea of tweeting during a concert -- even about the music -- occasioned a tremendous amount of debate. Now, the novelty has worn off, the anxiety has faded into the background, and I have a sense that we’re saving our indignation for people who forget to turn their cell phones off during concerts (a lapse that seldom fails to incite in me a moment of white-hot rage) rather than for those who tweet or live-blog or what have you.

And there’s a sense of familiarity about some of Twitter activities. Starting May 3, the Seattle Opera is tweeting the entire libretto of its forthcoming world premiere, Amelia (which opens on May 8), in 140-character installments at @AmeliaLibretto -- a happening not unlike the Bloomsday readings of James Joyce’s complete “Ulysses.” (The libretto is also available as a book for those who want to read it in a more linear fashion.) There have been a range of similar experiments with the medium already: live play performances, or, another much-discussed event last year, the Twitter opera.

Also familiar is #operaplot, which is back for a second round, a year after its inception. The creativity hasn’t slowed; you can read reams of 140-character opera plot summaries at the home page on the blog of The Omniscient Mussel (now referred to as Miss Mussel), who started the whole thing, or by searching for the #operaplot hashtag on Twitter. #operaplots are fun to read, hard to stop, and tempt you to join in, which anyone can do, either by tweeting their entry or submitting it to Miss Mussel’s blog (but in either case with the #operaplot hashtag, like this one from PattyOboe: "Oh say can you see my American wife? She will come take your child, and you'll take your life. #operaplot." Name that opera). This year, the tenor Jonas Kaufmann is the guest judge, and prizes include a trip to Dublin for "The Marriage of Figaro"; a 44-CD set of the complete Mozart operas from Universal; and tickets to sundry opera productions around the globe.
(read more after the jump)

When you read the #operaplot entries through on Twitter itself, you get caught up in the ebb and flow of conversation at which Twitter particularly specializes. An idea is broached, passed around, takes on a life of its own, fades away. (A recent motion on the #operaplot thread is trying to get the attention of William Shatner, himself a regular tweeter, to convince him to read the plots aloud, which would certainly add the right flavor of parody. No word on whether he’s yet noticed.)

This Twitter rhythm took the spotlight, literally, during a recent concert by the cellist Peter Gregson at the University of Maryland (which was, full disclosure, brought about by my husband). Peter, who's done a lot with Twitter (including playing and broadcasting live from Twitter's headquarters), has been experimenting with allowing tweets during his performances that he projects on a screen over his head while he plays. At the concert I saw, the first tweets were experimental, hesitant; the next ones praised Peter's playing; and gradually they took on more attitude, asked questions, got restive, began criticizing the music, and then grew self-referential as people debated whether or not they were more of a distraction than an enhancement. There was a performance-art aspect to the whole thing, not only because the performer sometimes looked back at the screen and interacted with the comments he saw, but also because the old comments never went away, so what showed was the record of a conversation, with comments repeating insistently, in shifting cycles, defying the chronology of the conversation and leaving it to the reader to keep track of the larger story.

Did it distract from the music? Absolutely. Did it keep the audience involved? To a degree. But after seeing how Twitter has moved from weird new phenomenon to part of the landscape in a short time, I wonder if in a year or so this development, too, will seem less odd and distracting. It’s only then that we can start to see what can actually be done with it. It's not something that should be done at every concert, and it's probably aimed more at 20-somethings than 50-somethings. But I wonder if it keeps some people focused more than usual at a concert on what's happening in front of them.

And is interactivity, that keeps you focused on the stage, really inherently worse than reading program notes during the music, which truly takes your focus in another direction? Thoughts welcome.

By Anne Midgette  |  April 29, 2010; 6:12 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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I agree completely that the landscape has changed drastically this past year. As an arts marketer, Twitter is now as much a part of my day as e-mail. One thing that does make me nervous though is the projecting of live-tweets during a performance, as you mention here in the context of Peter Gregson's recent performance in Maryland (Nashville Opera also did this last year, but in the lobby during intermissions). I encourage live tweeting with a hashtag, but projecting those tweets strikes me as incredibly risky. Of course there is the chance of meaningful insights arising that will enhance the musical experience, but the second one goofball takes the conversation in the wrong direction, I imagine the experience is shattered and more distracting than worthwhile. One horror story I recently heard: at a social media conference, the keynote speaker is lecturing about Twitter, and so during the talk the live tweets of attendees are being projected behind him...only everyone starts tweeting about how he is talking too fast, how boring it is, how they can't wait to leave.

Posted by: Brian_H | April 29, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Everything has its good and bad uses but Twitter by nature encourages people to be trite. If we're looking for non-musical "enhancements" to keep audiences' focus during concerts, bare naked dancers might work better than tweets. What best keeps my focus on a concert is a musically compelling performance.

Posted by: ScottRose | April 29, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Nice that you mentioned by name American composer Daron Aric Hagen, American poet Gardner McFall, and American director and librettist Stephen Wadsworth in your post above.

Posted by: snaketime1 | April 29, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

I don't have problems with live-tweeting by the audience, as long as it's done during intermission or before/after the performance, but not during. Nothing can be more annoying & distracting than the bright light emitted from the mobile devices of your neighbors in a dimmed theatre.

Regarding the twitter libretto by Seattle opera - I hope this is aimed for folks listening to it on radio or online at home. I'd be fuming if I'm at the opera and my neighbor is using his/her mobile device to read the libretto.

Posted by: ariadne1 | April 29, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

I find Twitter really, really boring.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | April 29, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

ariadne1: To be clear, the Seattle Opera is tweeting the libretto of "Amelia" in the days leading up to the opera, not during the performance.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | April 30, 2010 6:47 AM | Report abuse

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