Mark Schubin: Nights at the Opera

Dream Jobs 2008

4 min read

On stage, the dashing tenor Roberto Alagna pours out his love for the dark-eyed soprano Anna Netrebko, and she responds in kind. As the star-crossed lovers in the Metropolitan Opera's Roméo et Juliette , the pair sing with a fiery passion that would melt a stone.

But a few hundred meters away, sitting in a truck parked outside the Met's loading dock, television engineer Mark Schubin isn't moved. He's intently monitoring a huge bank of monitors and audio/video equipment, checking that the voices and instruments are all within range, that the audio and video feeds are open, and that everything technological about the otherwise gloriously overwrought performance is calm, quiet, and normal.

Most performances at the Met are done for the benefit of the few thousand ticket holders who fill the gilded auditorium. But today's show is being seen live by nearly a hundred thousand people all over the world. Video cameras and microphones in the opera house are capturing the singers' every move and note, and satellites are beaming those signals, in high definition and 5.1-channel digital surround sound, to more than 600 motion-picture theaters in 11 countries on four continents.

Pulling together the Met's second season of high-definition cinemacasts is as much a technical triumph as an artistic one, and for the last year and a half, the project has been consuming Schubin's life. He jokes that his job is ”to make sure nothing goes wrong,” but it's a lot more complicated, and interesting, than that.

After more than 34 years of engineering TV and radio broadcasts at the Met, Schubin is the opera's tech guru on a whole host of issues. Much like televising a professional football game or an Olympics event, engineering the Met's broadcasts raises countless technical issues, and Schubin weighs in on all of them—how to upload audio and video feeds to seven telecommunications satellites and ensure they arrive in good shape at the other end; what to do if cloud cover disrupts a satellite's signal or if power anywhere along the transmission path is lost; how to shoot in light levels that often dip below 10 lux; how to frame shots that are as pleasing on a 20-meter-wide cinema screen as on a tiny TV set. The list goes on.

A big concern this past summer was how to handle the translated subtitles that go out with the cinemacasts. During the initial season, they did it by ”brute force,” Schubin says, sending separate audio and video channels for the German- and English-subtitled feeds. This season, they're embedding bitmapped subtitles for five different languages within the transport stream itself, so that the subtitles travel along with the audio and video signals.

Schubin has defined some of the technical standards that now govern such broadcasts, and he's overseen the transition through several generations of TV equipment, from 1970s-era manually operated tube cameras running over multi­core cable to today's remote-­controlled, high-definition charge-­coupled-device cameras with 101x zoom lenses fed through fiber optics. When he's not engineering a shoot at the Met or elsewhere in Lincoln Center, the performing arts complex on Manhattan's West Side in New York City, he's on the road consulting at other theaters. Or he might be providing expert testimony on a broadcast-related lawsuit or writing his monthly technology column for Videography magazine. At this point, Schubin knows more about the inter­section of opera and broadcast technology than anybody else in the world.

But when he started his career, he knew nothing about either. Even before earning a B.S. in chemical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J., in 1971, he'd decided that a traditional engineering job wasn't for him. He took a fleeting turn as publisher of a high-spirited but short-lived newspaper called the Hoboken Herald . After the paper folded, he spent a few happy months out of work before landing a job at a small company called Computer Television, which aimed to change the way people watched TV.

It may be hard to recall, but there was a time when catching your favorite TV show meant parking yourself in front of the tube on a set night at a set time. There were no TiVos or VCRs. Schubin's boss, Paul Klein, saw that by marrying computer and video technology, you could watch any show whenever you chose.

As the only engineer on the three-man staff, Schubin got the task of learning everything about video and computers that he could. In 1971, he helped launch the company's successful pay-per-view movie service for hotels. The following year, he founded his own company, Electronic Solutions, and in 1973 he was hired to help Lincoln Center engineer its first televised series, which eventually became known as ”Live From Lincoln Center.”

The first production they filmed was Tales of Hoffmann , the opera by Jacques Offen­bach, starring Joan Sutherland in all the female leads. For the first time, people watching the close-ups of the Australian diva's face could see her emotive ability. ”People kept saying, ’I knew she was a great singer, but I had no idea she was also such a wonderful actress,' ” Schubin recalls. He still counts that show as one of the high points in his career, because it drove home the power of television to enhance the performing arts and reach audiences in new ways.

The Met's cinemacasts are further proof of that power. Sixty kilometers from Lincoln Center, at a suburban multi­plex in northern New Jersey, the live broadcast of Roméo et Juliette is showing on three screens and is nearly sold out. The audience seems enraptured. Between scenes, the cameras go backstage and show singers warming up and changing costumes; other cameras take the audience down into the orchestra pit.

Harold Nakayama, a retired Air Force technician and longtime opera fan, relished the privileged view. ”We got to see things that even the audience at the Met didn't get to see,” he says. ”That was really special.”

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