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The Impresario Who Invented the Movie Theatre

November 18th, 2016 | No Comments | Posted in Opera-Media Servings


A long time ago, I worked on a television show featuring opera star Luciano Pavarotti singing at the Spectrum arena, home of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team. The concert was performed between games, so flooring was laid over the ice, and the stage and seats over that. It wasn’t the first time opera had been performed in a hockey arena.

Manru, a relatively obscure opera written by the famous Polish pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski, had its world premiere in Germany in May of 1901. Less than a year later, it was performed by the Metropolitan Opera at Pittsburg’s Duquesne Garden hockey arena, one of only eight performances in the company’s history [officially, Pittsburgh had no h 1890-1911]. The Met performed five different operas at the Garden that year and another four the next. But that wasn’t Pittsburgh’s first opera at an indoor hockey arena.

schenley-casino-ice-rinkThe first indoor ice rink in Pittsburgh was at the Schenley Park Casino, where the Casino Comic Opera Company performed. The company was created by Harry Davis, who had previously hosted the Met at his Grand Opera House in Pittsburg, one of several theatres he ran in the city.

In 1896, Davis presented the first projected movies in Pittsburg at his Avenue Theatre, using the Lumières’ Cinematographe (the same day movies were also projected at the nearby Bijou Theatre using the Edison-promoted Vitagraph). By the end of the year, Davis had created his own Zinematographe movie system and used it to shoot a reentactment in Pittsburg of the boxing match between Peter Maher and Joe Choynski in New York (the fact that the same contenders were only acting got around questions of legality of fights).


nickeodeon-trimmedOne of Davis’s employees, Richard A. Rowland, who started as an assistant spotlight operator at age 12, suggested showing movies at the Grand Opera House, too. Davis eventually dedicated a room to projected movies at an arcade he ran next to one of his theatres. After the arcade burned down, he, and his partner and brother-in-law John Harris, opened a storefront theatre in 1905, with 96 “opera seats,” dedicated to nothing but projected movies. It was open almost 16 hours a day, but employees (in nice uniforms) worked eight-hour shifts. The admission fee was five cents, so it was called the Nickelodeon.

It was neither the first dedicated movie theatre nor the first place called a nickelodeon, but it was the first long-lasting one, and it was amazingly successful and influential. A Polish visitor who saw it brought the dedicated movie-theatre concept to Europe.  Carl Laemmle, co-founder of Universal Studios, opened his White Front Theatre in Chicago based on the Pittsburgh Nickelodeon. A Pittsburg suit salesperson, Harry Warner, opened a movie theatre in nearby New Castle with his brothers. A jeweler across the street, Lewis Seleznick, went into movie production; his son, David O. Selznick, is probably best known as the producer of Gone with the Wind.

1906-4-28-ny-clipperRowland took over his father’s theatrical supply company and added a film exchange. In 1910, he sold it for “more money than I thought existed” and went on to found companies that became important parts of MGM, Paramount, and Warner Bros. and to run Fox and have executive positions at such other studios as Republic and RKO.  Inspired by Rowland’s success, the Warner brothers opened their own Pittsburg film exchange before moving to Hollywood.

As for Davis, Musical America called him the “impresario of the hour” in 1918 and recommended him for a national “hero medal” for bringing opera to the masses outside New York, Chicago, and Boston and for ticket prices starting at 25 cents.  “I believe in opera,” he said.  “Its medium is a great education for the people.”


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Opera in New York City in 2015

December 30th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Opera-Media Servings


Opera was alive and well in New York City, again, in 2015. I have tried to compile all of the opera performances there in that year. I’ve probably missed some.

As I’m not a musicologist, and some scholars don’t consider even Bizet’s “Carmen” or Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” to be operas, I used these criteria for what to include:

  1. It had to be within the borders of New York City,
  2. Someone (in an ad, program, listing, or review) had to call it opera,
  3. There had to be at least one person present singing, and
  4. It had to be a complete performance (even if abridged).

moon-68000_1280The New York calendar has been listing Opera Philadelphia performances, which makes sense, as they’re probably easier and possibly even faster to get to from Manhattan than opera performances at Queens College, but they’re not in New York City, so I didn’t include them (though they are expected to perform in New York City in 2016). Listings in that calendar, The New York Times, The New Yorker, etc. typically include Glimmerglass performances four hours away, frequented by the New York City opera community; I didn’t. I also didn’t include out-of-town Bard, Caramoor, and Peak Performances, even though all three provide their own direct round-trip bus service from midtown Manhattan. Regular commuter trains also get within easy walking distance of the Peak Performances operas as well as those of other opera companies in the suburbs (such as New Rochelle Opera, listed in the New York calendar), which are, similarly, not included by me.

As for the other criteria, I didn’t include, for example, the New York Philharmonic’s fully staged production of Arthur Honegger’s “Joan of Arc at the Stake” oratorio because no one I read called it an opera. I didn’t include, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Opera Erratica production of Matt Rogers’s “La Celestina” because there was no in-person singer. And I didn’t include, for example, New York Opera Forum’s performances of two of Wagner’s “Ring” operas because they did only act 3 of each. Your criteria might differ from mine. I have a separate list of some of the NYC productions I didn’t include (not even considering theatrical musicals).

aida-60580_1280Even with all of those exclusions there were, by my count, 908 performances of 265 productions of 211 operas by 115 composers (plus pastiches) produced by 115 companies in 111 venues in NYC in 2015. If I had counted each mini-opera of Experiments in Opera’s “The Travel Agency Is on Fire” separately, there would have been 20 more performances of 10 more operas by more composers. All of the figures are higher than in 2013 (the last time I counted) except the composers (126 in 2013).

Of the 365 days of 2015, at most 71 did not have any opera performances in NYC, most of those in the summer, and many of those with a recital or other opera-related event or a performance outside the city borders. Every day of March and December had opera performances in NYC. On May 9th, it was possible to choose among 15 different opera performances, on December 5th 14, on December 1st 13, on November 7th 12, on May 2nd and December 12th 11 each, and on March 21st 10.

metrooplitan opera 1914As might be expected, the Metropolitan Opera had the most performances (234 not counting their co-production with Juilliard of three performances of Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Aulide”), but it was a smaller percentage of the total than in 2013, even though there were 22 more opera performances at the Met in 2015 than in 2013. New York Opera Forum was second with 53, a smaller number than usual because in 2015 they did more out-of-town performances and, as noted above, some individual acts of operas (which I didn’t count); it’s also possible that I missed noting a few of their performances. The Met performed the most operas (29), but the Opera Company of Brooklyn (22) and New York Lyric Opera Theatre (21) weren’t far behind.  Given the lack of New York City Opera performances this year, the Met’s proportion of ticket sales was probably higher than in 2013, but I don’t have those figures. New York Opera Forum performed in the most venues (10).

The most-performed opera in NYC in 2015 was Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (34 performances), followed by Joseph Rumshinsky’s “Di Goldene Kale,” sung in Yiddish (29 performances). I’m noting the composers of even well-known operas here because there were a production of a “Magic Flute” not by Mozart and two productions of Paisiello’s “Barber of Seville” (in addition to four of Rossini’s more-familiar version).

The top composer in terms of performances in New York City in 2015 was Verdi (83), followed by Mozart (74); in terms of different operas performed, it was again Verdi (12), followed by Donizetti (9).  There were operas performed in New York City in 2015 that had premiered in every half century from 1607 through 2015. At least 33 of the operas performed in NYC in 2015 premiered the same year, and at least another 11 are works still in progress; another 15 had premiered in 2002 through 2014.

There appeared to be 108 opera companies based in NYC active at least some time in 2015; 63 had performances in 2015, and 29 were involved in developing new operas (20 did both). That might be an all-time high. I’ve removed from the list those companies that did not appear to be active in 2015. To me the most shocking loss of 2015 was of Gotham Chamber Opera (which performed in March and had previously performed in such opera-related sites as a botanical garden, a burlesque house, and a planetarium). But new companies appeared in 2015, too: Apotheosis Opera, Bare Opera, OperaRox Presents, and Venture Opera (and others since the previous list in 2013); the audiences for these new companies seem to be on the young side. Collegiate Chorale is now Master Voices. And New York City Opera Renaissance is poised to do six performances of their first opera, a recreation of the 1900 production of Puccini’s “Tosca,” in January 2016 in the more-than-1100-seat Rose Theater (capacity varies with configuration). Encompass New Opera Theatre is another NYC company without performances in 2015 but with five planned in January 2016 (of Charles Fussell’s “The Astronaut’s Tale” at BAM Fisher with post-opera lectures on cosmological topics).

Rent_teatro_balc_0.slideI found it amusing that Apotheosis Opera’s first production, Wagner’s “Tannhauser” sung in English, was performed at El Teatro of El Museo del Barrio.  Other interesting venue news of 2015 included opera performed outdoors in Times Square, the information that the bookshelves of the library of the Fabbri Mansion (a New York City venue used by several opera companies) came from the library of the Duke of Urbino and were made in 1607 by Nicola Sabattini (author of a book on staging techniques published in 1637), and the opening of National Sawdust (with acclaimed acoustics). Opera America’s National Opera Center was the venue used by the most companies (6) in 2015 followed by Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium (5); if multiple auditoriums in a single complex are counted, the Brooklyn Academy of Music would tie for the top with Carnegie Hall (7 companies each). The Metropolitan Opera House had the most performances (234), followed by the National Museum of Jewish Heritage (29).

Eric EinhornThere were no technological breakthroughs in opera in NYC in 2015 of which I’m aware. In 2014, however, New York City’s On Site Opera became the world’s first company to use Google Glass for titles, for their production of Rameau’s “Pigmalion,” allowing audience members to see the text even if they were looking at singers behind them.

A spreadsheet with opera, company, composer, performance date, venue, and original premiere year (as best I could tell) is available so you may use the data to crunch your own numbers; multiple copies of listings on the same date indicate performances at different times that day. Two additional tabbed sheets cover some of my rejects and a list of active companies along with their web sites. The file is in the old mode so more software will be able to open it. Here’s a link to download it (about 212 KB): 2015 Opera in NYC spreadsheet

1833 Italian Opera House Leonard StreetFor those unfamiliar with New York City’s centuries-long opera history, here’s a link to a chronology somewhat technologically oriented but covering the early high points (such as the first dedicated opera house in the U.S., opened by Mozart librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte): Technologically oriented chronology of opera in NYC

Finally, for those who’d like to compare 2015 with 2013, I didn’t do things exactly the same way then, but you can find most of the 2013 info via this link: Opera in NYC in 2013

Any additions and corrections will be appreciated.

Happy New Year!



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Operatic Media Borrowings, Hybrids, and Commixtion by Mark Schubin

July 31st, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Download, Opera-Media Servings, Schubin Cafe


Presented at SID: Sounds, Images, and Data 2015 (, New York University, New York City on July 24, 2015.

Direct Link (69 MB / TRT 35:36):
Operatic Media Borrowings, Hybrids, and Commixtion by Mark Schubin


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The Technology of Le nozze di Figaro by Mark Schubin

June 29th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Download, Opera-Media Servings, Schubin Cafe

The Technology of “The Marriage of Figaro”

In October 2014, the Metropolitan Opera transmitted The Marriage of Figaro live from its technologically advanced stage to more than 2000 cinemas worldwide.  The opera can also be enjoyed at home via TV, radio, recordings, downloads, and streams.  The Marriage of Figaro was first performed in 1786, however, based on a play first performed two years earlier.  What stage and home-media technologies were available then?  You might be amazed.  And might then-new technologies have affected the plot if it were written just a few years later?

Presented at the Princeton Festival, Princeton, NJ on June 15, 2015.

Direct Link ( 74 MB / TRT 35:33):
The Technology of Le nozze di Figaro


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Baseball & Opera? Opera & Baseball?

November 6th, 2014 | No Comments | Posted in Download, Schubin Cafe

Recorded Wednesday, October 29, 2014. A free event for National Opera Week 2014 at GoingGoingGoneSports Gallery at the Atrium at Citigroup Center in New York City (with special thanks to Boston Properties and WorldStage).

Babe Ruth sang in opera houses.  The manager of the Metropolitan Opera House wears a World Series ring.  Baseball fans started watching remote games in opera houses beginning in 1885.  Opera fans went to ballparks to hear their favorites starting in 1916.

Direct Link (78 MB / 44:55  TRT): Baseball & Opera? Opera & Baseball?


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Alternative Content for Cinema (mp4), NAB, April 15, 2012

April 30th, 2012 | No Comments | Posted in Download, Today's Special

Alternative Content for Cinema
NAB, Las Vegas, NV
April 15, 2012

MP4: Alternative Content for Cinema
24.3 MB
TRT: 22:14

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The Alternatives

March 25th, 2012 | No Comments | Posted in Schubin Cafe


At next month’s SMPTE/NAB Technology Summit on Cinema in Las Vegas, one session will be devoted to “Alternative Content.” What’s that? It’s complicated.

One hundred years ago, the 1912 World Series was quite an event. In the history of baseball, it was the only best-of-seven World Series to have eight games. But the picture above, from the excellent Shorpy site,, is confusing.

The World Series was a contest between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Giants, and it was played, as might be expected, at Fenway Park and the Polo Grounds, respectively, in those cities. But the crowd above was in Washington, D.C. What were they looking at?

They were looking at a scoreboard (, shown above. If that seems ridiculous, consider 1912. There was no Internet. There were no TV or radio sportscasts. Just about the only way to keep track of the game was to hang around a newspaper office, where reports received by telegraph would be posted.

Even in 1912, it was a pretty old idea. The New York State Oswego Daily Times reported on May 23, 1876 about “a group of Syracusans” keeping track of an away game by gathering “around the baseball bulletin.” In 1888, Edward Sims Van Zile filed a patent application for a “Bulletin-Board and Base-Ball Indicator”

By 1895, the fans had moved indoors. Frank Chapman’s “Automatic Baseball by Electricity” opened at Palmer’s Theatre in New York City that July. According to a lengthy report about the apparatus in the August 7 issue of The Electrical Engineer, the stage was turned into a ball park. “All the players have their proper positions on the big field, and are represented by dummy marionettes, true to the life and about 3 feet high,” moving according to the action being telegraphed from the real game. In 1907, Buffalo’s Garden Theatre offered an “electric baseball diagram.” In 1908, it was the 1750-sear Gotham Theatre in New York City.

Thanks to Shorpy, again (, above is a view of what audiences at Washington’s National Theater saw of the Coleman Life-Like Scoreboard in 1924 (some version had been in use there since 1913, before that a Jackson scoreboard, and before that a Rodier). Below ( is what it looked like backstage with its five operators.

When people went to a theater in 1909 to watch a game via the Rodier Electric Baseball Game Reproducer (“which set Atlantic City wild”), they paid admission prices of 25 and 50 cents. The same year, as the photo at left, taken in Detroit, clearly indicates (, the admission price for a typical movie theater was just five cents (thus the name Harry Davis and John Harris gave in 1905 to the first theater dedicated to showing nothing but movies, Nickelodeon).

Not only could theaters charge five-to-ten times the price of a movie to provide some sort of community access to a remote event, but they filled up, too. In Washington, D.C. in 1914, viewers could “attend” different baseball games at the Bijou, Columbia, Cosmos, Gayety, Keith’s, National, and Poli’s theaters, and, if one of those was busy with a play, the equipment was moved into an armory. In New York, the Coleman Life-Like Scoreboard was also set up in an armory, as well as in Madison Square Garden.

The previous post here (on theatrical television) noted that opera was proposed for transmission to theaters in 1877 and has been carried live to ball parks ( In 1914, the opposite occurred. The Providence Opera House installed a Coleman Life-Like Scoreboard for baseball-game viewers (in 1931, the Tuscon Opera House was still offering viewers the opportunity to “watch” the World Series on a Playograph). And, in the same year of 1914, Archibald Low demonstrated a crude form of television in London.

In 1925, Low published a book called The Future. In that book, he described (and showed an image of) viewers in London watching car races transmitted from Australia live (right).

After theatrical television systems became reality, audiences flocked to see those. And just what did they go to see? “Television,” as the poster at left indicates. Even as late as 1948, Alfred N. Goldsmith wrote in the Journal of the Society of Motion-Picture Engineers, “Television pictures in theaters will, initially, at least, have the strong appeal of novelty.”

The first content to be described as other than just “television” was the Epsom Derby in 1932, followed by an international transmission that brought a Danish film star’s image home from London. In 1936, the Olympic Games in Berlin were seen in television-viewing theaters like the one shown at right. In 1941, theatrical viewers saw live boxing and (finally) baseball; in 1952, they saw their first live opera, a Metropolitan Opera production of Carmen, seen in 31 cinemas in 27 cities (below).

Plays, football, basketball, symphony concerts, and even Presidential addresses were soon added. Results seemed, initially at least, very promising. U.S. News & World Report noted in 1949, “By 1952, most important theaters are expected to be equipped with television screens.” The Billboard reported on February 9, 1952 about a recent boxing match sent to theaters. “The State-Lake Theater in Chicago was the scene of a near riot, with disappointed people in the long line smashing down the doors in an effort to see the showing.”

When Life magazine looked at the field on January 5, 1953, however, less than a year later (when theatrical television was sometimes called closed-circuit TV), the report was not as glowing. Considering a carpet convention replaced by theatrical television (below), they quoted an unhappy “Midwest rug dealer” who missed the face-to-face get-together. “How else can I get away from my wife for five days?”

This was their description of the success of the opera transmission. “Like most others, this Denver theater was not sold out. Many of them lost money on the opera.” And their comments on the technical quality were even worse. “The moviegoers… heard the music distorted, often sounding like a worn-out record. Faces of singers became ghostly blobs, and their figures were so elongated that one critic saw ‘people resembling overripe bananas.’ Color was sadly missed.” The carpet convention, too, “suffered from poor picture images and lack of color.”

Perhaps surprisingly, then, the comment cards filled out by viewers, available for inspection at the Metropolitan Opera Archives, are almost uniformly positive, even at a theater that was briefly accidentally switched to TV-network programming (TV stations had to forego their network feeds to allow the opera transmission through). Why? Possibly crowd mentality and cognitive dissonance. In a theater, if no one else complains, why should you? As for the dissonance, if you pay a lot for a ticket (up to about $65 in today’s money), dress up, hire a babysitter, travel to the theater, and don’t like the show, you were stupid to expend so much time, money, and effort, so maybe it wasn’t so bad.

Regarding the financial failure, it was of its time. In 1952, there were about 2.7 billion movie tickets sold in the U.S.; in 2011, it was less than 1.3 billion. At the same time, the U.S. population grew from 158 million to 312 million, so people went to about four times as many movies back then. And movie theaters were larger, many with more seats than the opera house. If the theaters could fill those seats with movies and not with opera, then the latter was a failure.

Whatever the reason, theatrical television in the 1950s (like that era’s 3D movies) was not a lasting success. Movie studios dropped plans, and few movie theaters were equipped. When Theater Network Television, the first and largest theatrical television distributor, transmitted its 75th event, in 1954, a General Motors celebration of the production of their 50-millionth vehicle, the viewing venues included Carnegie Hall but also conference rooms in 52 hotels.

Today is a different era. Instead of being called theatrical television or closed circuit, the field is now “alternative content,” cinemas are equipped for non-film-based projection, and, perhaps due to its institutional nature and fan base, opera has become the number-one alternative content worldwide.

What is alternative content? Consider the matrix at left from the web site of BY EXPERIENCE HD, which calls itself “Pioneers of Global Live Cinema Events.” It includes operas, plays, radio shows, talks (including a talk about a TV series), concerts ranging from classical to rock, a documentary, and a college-choir holiday performance probably aimed primarily at the school’s alumni (

That’s just one producer/distributor. Others provide marching bands, ballet, church services, sports, political and economic events, children’s shows, instruction, charity events, and even game-playing, some in stereoscopic 3D.

Strangely, even movies can be alternative content. They just have to be tied to specific moments: anniversaries of classics, reminders of what preceded new sequels, and previews.

The key is that, whatever else the alternative content might be, it must be an event. Unfortunately, non-alternative content (better known as regular movies) does not share the event nature. Cinema personnel are, therefore, not accustomed to dealing with such issues as signal reception (at right, brushing snow out of a satellite dish above a cinema in Erie, Pennsylvania) or even noticing when a live event has ended, which is why the mostly white image shown below remains on screen for the last ten minutes of each Metropolitan Opera cinema transmission; it provides exit lighting.

The economics of alternative content have also changed since the 1950s. According to published figures, The Metropolitan Opera: Live in HD has finished as high as ninth in weekend U.S. movie theatrical box office grosses. That can seem spectacular, given that there was a single showing of the opera vs. three days of continuous movie showings. Due to those continuous and ongoing showings (beyond the weekend), however, the movies continue to earn theatrical revenues, whereas the opera (except for an “encore” presentation) doesn’t. An opera that ranked ninth in its live weekend could fall to near 200th in revenue for the year.

On the other hand, alternative content doesn’t necessarily have to make a profit for its producer. If it increases exposure, donations, voter turnout, opera-house attendance, community outreach, etc., it can serve its purpose.

Exhibitors (movie-theaters) do need justification to provide auditoriums, however, which is another reason why alternative content is often priced higher than movies — and scheduled for low-movie-attendance times. An opera that starts at 9 am on the U.S. west coast and lasts for hours — with intermissions — can not only fill an otherwise empty cinema but also provide exceptional business for its concession stand, as the photo above left indicates (a portion of a larger image that appeared in The New York Times on January 1, 2007, shot by J. Emilio Flores in a Burbank, California cinema during the Metropolitan Opera’s The Magic Flute

Of course, as in the 1950s, this is a challenging era for movie exhibitors. With television’s household penetration increasing back then, the movie business turned to stereoscopic 3D and higher-resolution formats. Today, with HD home-theater penetration increasing, the movie business is turning to, well, stereoscopic 3D and higher-resolution (4K) formats. And with sports arenas and arts centers also equipped to show HD images, alternative content can move to alternative venues, like the AT&T Park ball field, shown at right with a live San Francisco Opera feed of Lucia di Lammermoor (

Though this post has covered events in the U.S., alternative content for cinema is a global phenomenon (pre-Avatar, there was even a live 3D opera from France). Here’s a link to The EDCF Guide to ALTERNATIVE CONTENT in Digital Cinema from the European Digital Cinema Forum, published in September 2008 (it’s also popular in Asia, Africa, Australia, and the rest of the Americas):

Don’t like the movie business? Consider the alternatives.

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“The Fandom of the Opera: Live HD to Cinemas,” HD World, October 13, 2010

November 1st, 2010 | No Comments | Posted in Download, Today's Special
The Fandom of the Opera: Live HD to Cinemas
HD World, October 13, 2010

(42 MB, 60 slides, 43 minutes)


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Metropolitan Opera Hits Top-10 Box Office!

October 29th, 2010 | No Comments | Posted in Today's Special

Actually, The Metropolitan Opera: Live in HD, the series of transmissions to movie theaters that began in December 2006, has hit the top-10 of weekend theatrical box office many times in such countries as Canada and the UK.  In the U.S., however, although the series, said to be the number-one alternative (non-movie) content in cinemas worldwide, has hit number 11 on multiple occasions, it never before broke through to the top-10.

Last Saturday, that changed.  According to figures in Variety and, the Metropolitan Opera’s Boris Godunov squeaked past Easy A, the 10th-place movie:,

It might be worth noting that those box-office figures represent three days of continuous showings for the movies and just a single showing for the opera, which, being live, began early in the morning in some U.S. movie theaters.  It also lasted almost five hours and was sung entirely in Russian!

Coincidentally, cartoonist Alex Anderson, who first drew the characters Rocky & Bullwinkle, died the day before.  The connection?  Their nemesis, of course, Boris Badenov:

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“The Fandom of the Opera,” LaGuardia Community College, October 6, 2010

October 17th, 2010 | No Comments | Posted in Download, Today's Special
The Fandom of the Opera:
How a Four-Century-Old Art Form Helped Create Stereo, Home Entertainment, the News, and More
LaGuardia Community College, October 6, 2010


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