Friday, March 08, 2013

Opera and MOOCS

I've really learned to enjoy opera (the art form not the browser) and while I've come to really enjoy Atlanta, the city only has a regional opera company. So I tried out the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts in a local movie theater here. I have to say the experience was quite amazing, the picture and sound was amazing. In many ways a better experience than watching the opera live at the Met, with close-ups and back stage interviews. It doesn't replicate the atmosphere of seeing an opera live but it does give people who don't have access to the Met a great opera experience.

Watching the opera made me think of an analogy to MOOCs. There is limited scaling we can do in a classroom or an opera house, but the Opera HD and MOOCs can scale tremendously with only moderate additional cost. A MOOC doesn't replicate the classroom experience but done well it can offer some advantages to a classroom.

So this seems like a win for the opera lover. But not every opera company benefits. I went to see the Parsifal on Met HD last Saturday instead of the Altanta Opera's Traviata. Even other great US opera companies like the Chicago Lyric might not get a huge audience if they tried broadcasting their operas in movie theaters. How does the analogy play out for universities and MOOCs?


  1. Another analogy to MOOCs -- opera snobs hate it:

    OK, they don't hate it, but they bemoan the coarsening of the experience, while acknowledging some of the benefits.

  2. It will make fame and luck a much more important part of being an opera singer (resp., an instructor). Just as the difference between a Hollywood superstar and the struggling actor (now a waiter) that never got a break is based almost entirely on random chance, a similar phenomenon will take place.

  3. It will spell the doom of local opera (resp. local colleges) and most small production companies (resp. small liberal arts colleges). The big opera companies (resp. famous universities) that have a global brand (e.g. The Met or MIT or Harvard) will get more exposure and a mild bump in revenues, although that will be primarily in volume because the ticket prices (resp. tuition bills) are insanely cheaper for the distributed product than for the personally delivered product.

    The "Farm teams" of the minor repertories (resp. non-famous universities and colleges) will cease to exist, and so performers (resp. professors) will have to debut big (resp. start with a career at a major institution) or find their careers stillborn.

    1. Not necessarily. The availability of CDs did not represent the doom of rock performers. The problem of opera is the lack of a big enough audience, as much as insanely high ticket prices. If there was a huge demand, there would be a large enough subset that would pay enough, and a large enough number of donors that would pay for the rest.
      Another possibility is the broadening of the repertory. Chicago Opera Theater just put up a short run of a new Philip Glass opera.

      In the college context, colleges will have to make sure they are doing something unique or worthwhile. Within CS, students may try to go to a place where their programs, and their proofs will be read by a competent human, marked up, and where they will get suggestions for improvement. They will want to go places where they will get inspired -- by famous faculty, by dedicated faculty, or by an excellent cohort (ideally all three, but at least one is pretty much essential.)

  4. I love this. When they put it up on YouTube I will be able to get so much else done while watching an opera. This will also make it cheaper in the long run since even though they might need to film several takes of the opera and edit them to get it just right they won't need to use the space for as long and won't need to have the performers around for as long either. They also won't need to do it year after year since once it's in the can it's there forever. Within 10 years all operas that matter will be recorded and then all opera companies can be disbanded except perhaps one or two for the elite who are too good for watching recorded versions.

  5. The Opera classics are what makes opera not enjoyable for me. The quality of performance is not enough for me if I don't understand what is being sent.

  6. In its earliest embodiments opera served objectives that were largely educational (and even philosophical), but opera has evolved to become nowadays (mainly) live entertainment.

    Could higher education migrate mainly to MOOCS, relegating universities to a limited role as purveyors of (mainly) live entertainment?

    A recent Science editorial by Norman Augustine, former CEO of the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, offers food for thought:

    They Never Saw It Coming

    When I became the chief executive officer of a large aerospace company, the Berlin Wall had just collapsed.

    Had I been told that within six years 40% of all the people in the industry and three-fourths of its companies would be gone, I would have said, "Not possible."

    It happened.

    In particular, if MOOCS evolve to attract the top quartile of student talent, and succeed at certifiably educating these top quartile students more rapidly, less espensively, and more accessibly than conventional universities …

    … then yes, radical change will be forced upon high-rank, mid-rank, and low-rank universities. Unstoppably, eh?

    1. Sorry, but the comment about opera is just wrong. Operas started as pure entertainment. They evolved from "intermedi"--incidental music in between parts of large public spectacles put up by rich Italian magnates who used such events to legitimize their rule. Public operas were again mainly social events, and 17th century opera houses public function was akin to contemporary baseball games: rich folks had boxes for the season, they would socialize, eat, flirt and talk during the events, and applaud at the good parts.

      If you are talking of Greek tragedies as the ancestors of the opera, it is even more wrong: while there may have been religious (NOT philosophical) origins, they were public entertainment. Could you tell us of the "largely educational objectives" served by Lysistrata, for example?

      As for the demise of the aerospace industry, it is clearly not true that 40% of the people are gone. They are just not here in the US or in Europe. There are plenty of aerospace folks working in China, India, Brazil, etc.

    2. CSProf, please allow me to commend to your attention — and the attention of Computational Complexity readers — the unbounded ambitions of the Florentine Camerata (1573-1582) … ambitions that which were comparably broad to those of any modern university.

      As an interesting footnote, the Camerata's members included Vincenzo Galilei … the father of Galileo Galilei!

      In regard to the accelerating globalization of industry and of academia, surely it is implausible that unforeseen changes can come to either one, without also coming to the other?

      Norman Augustine's editorial in Science sets forth this view in convincing common-sense terms (as it seems to me).

  7. In Daniel Chua's Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning we encounter a passage that, under the isomorphism (opera)<->(STEM), maps sixteenth century opera to 21st century MOOCS:

    The group who allegedly created opera, the so-called 'Florentine Camerata' of Giovanni Bardi, which included Vincenzo Galilei and Giulio Caccine, were driven by a sense of loss and the need to regain an ancient magic.

    Although it would be simplistic to claim that the Camerata invented opera, the theories they espoused in the 1580s register the disenchantment of music that is the anxiety behind opera. The wanted to revive the bardic magic of monodic song, for modern music, they claimed, had come into a crisis of identity: music had lost its power.

    If music were still magical, argues Galilei, then where are the 'miracles' that today are described in the ancient texts?

    Is modern-day STEM academia "driven by a sense of loss"? Is there a STEM "crisis of identity"? Do today's STEM students and sponsors wonder "Where are the 'miracles' today that are described in the ancient texts" (for us, the "ancient texts" of 1957, eh?).

    Is this historically natural isomorphism Florentine Camerata)<->(STEM community) what deans and chairs (like Lance) have in mind in linking opera to MOOCS?

    Who knows! :)