Lyri made its debut at the Rossini Opera Festival
At the opera with Lyri and Celia Montgomery
AHH! An opera festival in Italy! So glamorous! So exciting! The foot-stomping audiences, the breath-taking music… the deep befuddled confusion!
Unless you have remarkable language skills, it’s pretty difficult to understand 19th Century Italian sung by a coloratura soprano. If you don’t speak any Italian, the subtitles will only deepen the mystery.
I found myself wondering if Rossini had written an opera about the importance of water conservation.
For six years, I have been attending the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy. The experience is always wonderful, but not always comprehensible. When I first started attending the festival, I had almost no Italian, so I would prepare for each performance by reading a synopsis or an English translation of the libretto. But no amount of advance-reading can substitute for in-the-moment translation. On one occasion, I arrived at a performance of an unfamiliar opera after a flight delay. In my dash from the airport in Milan, there was no time to review the synopsis. The production turned out to be very “conceptual”. Jet-lagged and confused, I tried to make sense of the action. As singers in rags fought for plastic bottles on a starkly raked set, I found myself wondering if Rossini had written an opera about the importance of water conservation.
It would be prohibitively expensive for a two-week festival to install the sort of multi-lingual translation devices that exist at large opera houses. But the Rossini festival recently found a more affordable alternative – Lyri, a web-based translation app.
Lyri operates on a private WIFI network. Audience members download the Lyri app to their smartphones prior to the performance. At the theater, they select the Lyri WIFI channel, and then open the app to access real-time translation in several language choices.
Lyri was introduced in Pesaro last season. Obviously, opera-goers were a little suspicious of the technology at first. To operate a smartphone in an opera house is normally considered a mortal sin. Would the phones annoy the singers? Would users be distracted from the action on stage by the words on the screen?
Happily, none of those fears were realized. Audience members using Lyri were reminded to turn their phones to airplane mode. Translations were shown in simple white letters on a black background, so that almost no screen light could be detected.
Although my eye was drawn down to my lap a little too often at first, I soon adapted and barely noticed the transition.
I used Lyri at six performances last summer and found that it significantly enhanced my experience. Although my eye was drawn down to my lap a little too often at first, I soon adapted and barely noticed the transition. It was wonderful to finally understand every nuance of the plot. The productions were exceptional, and my enjoyment of them was intense. The witty repartee in Barber, the cunning deceptions of Ricciardo e Zoraide, the sparkling silliness of Adina – the detailed acting and direction all landed spontaneously and powerfully on me.
There were some technical glitches. Toward the end of one performance of Ricciardo e Zoraide, the translation seemed to go haywire and the words were obviously incorrect. Also: be prepared to share! If your seatmate doesn’t have the Lyri app, they will be tempted to look over your shoulder! But, overall, a big hurrah to this wonderful innovation. I’m really looking forward to future seasons with Lyri.
Celia Montgomery is a frequent visitor to the Rossini Opera Festival and is a member of the American Rossini Society