A very special opera event went on in Paris in early June 2000: »La Traviata« by Giuseppe Verdi, performed at the original places and times of day, was live-broadcasted on TV. This is a new kind of program with very particular technical and artistic demands where a look behind the curtain is truly fascinating. 125 broadcasting services – from Argentina to Cypress, from Finland to New Zealand – put the show on air, and approximately 1.5 billion people watched the performance according to figures spread by the Italian Broadcasting Service RAI.
Audio Broadcasting for the TV Production of »La Traviata« in Paris
Performing an opera at the original sites and broadcasting it on TV – that rather reminds of a live feature than the performance of classical music. There had been a forerunner event several years before when »Tosca« had been played in Rome – quite a success in opera-enthusiastic Italy. As some kind of sequel to this innovative genre, producer Andrea Andermann and RAI made an even more complex performance happen – »La Traviata« in Paris!
Original Sites with a Central Orchestra
»La Traviata« was inspired by Alexandre Dumas' novel »The Lady of the Camellias« that is said to be based on a true story from 19th-century Paris. Music scientists are quite sure to have found the four original places where it all had happened: A palais in central Paris (where today the Italian embassy is located), a small estate near the parks of Versailles castle, Le Petit Palais – again in the center of Paris -, and a small miserable room at the Seine shore near the Church of Notre Dame. It was these locations where the live production took place – on real, existing backgrounds; only a few artificial wings were erected for hiding technical equipment but these were not disturbing the scenes.
An orchestra hall was required in addition to the original sites because the orchestra was supposed to perform the music from a central place as a single sonic body. A hall at the Avenue de Wagram was chosen to accommodate the 60 musicians of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI that was conducted by Zubin Mehta.
It was not only the original sites but also the original times of day that were to be considered in order to catch the original atmosphere. So, a noon scene was played (and broadcasted) at noon while an evening scene was performed – no surprise – in the evening. Therefore, the three acts were split up into four programs that were broadcasted on Saturday evening, Sunday at noon, Sunday evening, and Sunday, half an hour before midnight.
This event was a challenge not only from the casting but also from the technical point of view. It was crucial to interconnect the five sites in and around Paris in a way that the singers could hear the orchestra playing at the Avenue de Wagram and vice versa. Normally, this is not a problem in our modern telecommunication society; we know satellites and other connectivity options allowing for accessibility almost everywhere in the world. However, these means still include a certain latency that is not acceptable for a synchronous performance of orchestra and singers in a live situation.
O.B. Trucks or LWC lines could not be provided; on the other hands, highest demands were put on audio quality because there was not only the live performance but the recordings were to be released on CD and DVD. Therefore, RAI decided to set up five distributed digital studios, four of which were networked using directional radio. France Telecom supplied the required facilities.
On the one hand, the four parts were digitally produced and recorded on 96 tracks (2 x DASH Studer D 820 MCH 48-track machines) while they transferred to the broadcasting center at the same time using directional radio and were mixed down there in real time. Only digital technology could fulfill all demands put on audio quality and the complexity of the system, so all five sites had been equipped with digital NEXUS routing systems by Stage Tec. Their 28-bit microphone-input boards allowed for recording virtually all nuances of the performance and to handle unexpected dynamic peaks without a flaw.
For this purpose, NEXUS base devices supplying the microphone inputs were concealed near the opera singers at each site. The audio signals were then transmitted to the container studios. It was in these studios, which were almost a thousand feet away from the scene for optical and acoustic reasons, where mixing and recording took place.
In the same way, the orchestra performance was transferred to the numerous speakers that were skirting the paths of the solo singers. More NEXUS base devices were employed as routers in the containers studios and as program connections to the directional-radio stations that were installed on cranes – a highly complex network made up of many individual units interconnected by fibre-optics.
As the event was being broadcasted on TV, the expenditure was additionally increased by the fact that neither microphones nor loudspeakers must be visible. The main actors were equipped with miniature microphones (Sennheiser Wireless) in their hair, and there were microphones lingering in every chandelier and behind every sculpture. Speakers were hidden in the high meadows of the Gardens of Versailles to ensure that the singers were performing in absolute synchronicity to the orchestra.
Even the large choir was not acting statically but moved on according to the action on stage. It was critical here to mix a choir sound from many individually picked-up voices – a very complex task since an overall sound of optimum quality and consistent with the current scene was to be produced from a multitude of signals. The stabilizing influence in the ever-changing scenario was the orchestra. Maestro Mehta perfectly mastered the mission of integrating the remote sites (via headphone) and the orchestra – with no compromise regarding the performing quality but very cooperative about this unusual way of working. Thus, the orchestra hall could be called the »wordclock« of the event – at least concerning the musical part. The orchestra performance was mixed and recorded using one of RAI's CANTUS desks that had previously been in use at the annual live broadcast from the San Remo Canzone Festival. At the same time, the CANTUS transferred the music to the remote sites. Using NEXUS, the original program was then passed on to the O.B. Truck, where the broadcasting sound was mixed.
Showdown at Midnight
The extremely high technical expenditure required an immensely large staff. Approximately 300 people were involved in the terminal production phase of about three months. First, the entire technical structure was tested in TV studios in Rome where also the first artistic events and rehearsals took place. The entire equipment was then disassembled and sent to Paris where it was remounted in early May. The final rehearsals, a preview performance, and the successful live production followed.
In the beginning, many opera enthusiasts were quite uneasy with this performing concept because it combines the opera performance with TV-feature elements and the perfection of a cinema production. However, the result was a brilliant event with an extent of perfection that made many critics assume a playback swindle!
After all, the timing was perfect thanks to a painstaking preparation. When the protagonist died of consumption at midnight on Sunday, the Notre Dame bells stroke midnight – just in time!
La Traviata: A Summary
Act 1: At a ball taking place in her palais in Paris, the celebrated but shaken Violetta Valéry who is the girlfriend of Baron Douphol meets her secret lover Alfred Germot who confesses his love to her. Impressed and being in love for the first in her life, she gives him a camellia and promises to meet him again when the flower is withered.
Act 2, Scene 1: The two protagonists have discreetly moved to a villa in Versailles near Paris and are living there in lonesomeness. One day, when Alfred has gone to Paris, his father visits Violetta and urges her to sever the unsuitable relationship to Alfred. First Violetta vigorously defends her love but later on consents to withdraw as the old Germot puts the screw upon her. She leaves to Paris.
Act 2, Scene 2: Accompanied by Baron Douphol, Violetta arrives at a festival in Paris where Alfred is expecting her. Several misunderstandings occur between the two, resulting in an éclat.
Act 3: All the tension has finished Violetta off; she is about to die. Meanwhile, Alfred's remorseful father has confessed him why Violetta withdrew so suddenly. She is awaiting his visit eagerly and still hopes for a common future. However, when Alfred arrives at her small room near the Seine, she can only asseverate her love to him. Immediately afterwards, Violetta dies – exactly at midnight.