David Pogue makes opera debut at Wolf Trap with Google Glass in ‘Carmen’


David Pogue, a well-known technology writer, will take Google Glass onstage to communicate to the audience a sense of what it’s like under the lights. (Courtesy of David Pogue/Courtesy of David Pogue)

On Friday, David Pogue is making his opera debut.

Pogue is a well-known technology writer who made his name during 13 years at the New York Times before leaving to found the Web site Yahoo Tech. In his first career, though, he was an aspiring composer of musical theater, a Broadway orchestrator and even a sometime singer. (He still puts his voice to use in, for instance, a TED-talk medley about the tech industry.) He’s also coauthored two books on music: “Opera for Dummies” and “Classical Music for Dummies.”

At Wolf Trap’s Filene Center, he’ll be using his technology and his music skills. Pogue is going on stage in “Carmen” with a Google Glass headset, a small wearable computer, and broadcasting snippets of the onstage action to give the audience a sense of what it’s like to be out there under the lights.

He is still deciding whether he will sing. “If I were wearing the glasses and broadcasting while I’m singing,” he said in a phone conversation from his Connecticut home, “you would hear nothing but me.” He’s not sure he wants to take that risk.

The Google Glass experiment, like most things at the Wolf Trap Opera, actually began with Kim Witman, the company’s director, who became a Google Glass explorer (by invitation) a couple of years ago. “One of the things it does the best is share unusual perspectives with people who can never have them,” she said. Some have used the Glass to record their mountain ascents; a woman documented her life in a wheelchair. “Let’s try something like that,” Witman remembered thinking, “see if we can get glimpses of the opera experience and share it with the people.”

“Glimpses” is an operative word. “The Glass doesn’t do a good job with long-form recording,” Witman said.

The idea is that Pogue will collect snippets of experience, which will be broadcast at various times during the show and eventually collated into a mini-video.

“This is not for the benefit of people at home,” Pogue said. “This is for the benefit of people watching it live, so it’s a little more exciting that way. . . . It gives you a different interpretation of stuff you’re seeing live. Then there is the fact that it’s not a TV camera. It’s not meant to be this professional-level high-def cinematic experience; it’s on someone’s face in the middle of the other singers. I get one rehearsal. I’ve been thinking about what would be the most interesting thing to look at when.”

He added, “We’ll only figure out how to make this art form appeal to a younger generation by experimenting till we find something that works.”

No one really expects that Google Glass broadcasts represent the future of opera or technology. Pogue isn’t even sure the device will catch on. “I would be willing to predict that Google Glass will go the way of the Segway,” he said. “It won’t disappear; it will find its niches. . . . They talk about using them for surgeons, airplane technicians: people who need to refer to diagrams and instructions hands-free.”

Indeed, the device has a predicament in common with opera: It’s not seen as cool. “The problem that Google Glass faces as a mass-market product,” Pogue said, “apart from price [it retails for $1,500] and the fact that you can’t fold them and have to charge them every day, is a social problem, not a technology problem. You look weird. You seem smug.”

The Wolf Trap experiment is more of an attention-grabber, offering a one-time shift of perspective — and helping draw attention to another technological innovation. At the same time that Pogue is Glass-casting from the stage, Wolf Trap will host a test run of a system of opera titles, projected not, like many titles, on a screen, but transmitted to the audience’s cellphones and tablets. The brainchild of Figaro Systems — the company that created seat back titles for the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico — the titles will appear in white on a black screen, so the glowing-screen effect so hated by many classical-music aficionados will be minimized. Wolf Trap will also set aside a section of lawn for people who don’t want to be bothered by other people’s cellphones.

For Pogue, this musical outing is not that unusual. He does what he can to keep his hand in. Indeed, he holds an honorary degree in music from Shenandoah Conservatory. “The dean of that conservatory has a most unusual point of view,” he said. “He wanted these young musicians to know that you do not have to become a professional musician to experience success in music. . . . Not becoming a pro, not cutting it, does not mean failure; you will always find ways to make music a part of your life, like this guy did” — meaning, in this case, Pogue himself.

Not that Pogue has entirely abandoned his dreams of professional musical success. “I do not still work on” musicals, he said. “But I do still hope to get back to it.”

Carmen 8:15 p.m. Friday at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap. Tickets, $25-$75.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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