Death and Powers

A scene from “Death and Powers

What’s New In Opera and Tech

Four hundred years ago, Baroque operas saw the invention of audio-visual special effects, stage machinery and dramatic lighting. More recently, the caprices of the Metropolitan Opera’s “Ring” machine garnered almost as much attention as the performances themselves. 

Opera has a long history with spectacle, which is to say that it has a long history with technology: How do we make this ship sail across the sky? How do we set the mezzo on fire? But it swings the other way, too: Opera has frequently served as the testing ground for new media, from the first use of television to the first use of high definition sound equipment and beyond. 

So what now? It seems that nothing has changed: Opera continues to be at the forefront of invention. As far as artistic directors are concerned, it’s all for the purpose of putting on a good show. But if the digital revolution has taught us anything, it’s that technological innovations carry the potential to transform our entire way of living, of thinking – our very culture. With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the most exciting technological trends in opera today and what they might mean for the future.

Parksville Murders

A scene from “Parksville Murders.”

Magic Butterfly

A scene from “Magic Butterfly.”

VIRTUAL REALITY: Last fall, Opera on Tap debuted “The Parksville Murders,” which they billed as “the world’s first VR horror opera.” The nonprofit teamed up with composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist Jerre Dye to create a serial tale of grisly disappearances and murders enacted by supernatural beings called the Watchers. When a panicked singer brandishes a monkey wrench at a group of these black-cloaked beings, and then turns her weapon on you, the viewer, you find yourself wondering if you’re one of the Watchers, too. (Are you? We’ll have to wait for the next installments.) Either way, VR certainly expands possibilities in breaking the fourth wall. And combined with the special effects available from film, it offers a new way to liberate opera from the stage entirely. Executive producer Anne Hiatt hopes that the alluring format will help introduce opera to new fans.

Welsh National Opera is also in on VR. Their recent production of “Magic Butterfly” combined VR with motion capture technology, requiring years of collaboration with U.K.-based studio REWIND and the University of Bath’s Centre for the Analysis of Motion, Entertainment Research and Applications (CAMERA). One can only hope that the production continues its tour beyond its January circuit of English cities. 

Death and Powers

The moving set pieces become performers in “Death and Powers.”

ROBOTS: Composer Tod Machover is still the reigning champion when it comes to opera and robots. His 2010 work “Death and the Powers” (also known as “the robot opera”) was a tour de force of live performance combined with technology – both its application and its philosophical implications. The production required intensive collaboration with the MIT Media Lab, who made use of over 40 computers, 140 speakers and technologies like hyperinstruments, 3-D visualization and Disembodied Performance. All this was to tell the tale of Simon Powers, who achieves immortality by zapping his consciousness into an electronic database known as “The System;” after entering it, Powers’ performance is digitally portrayed.

Machover’s seamless integration of music and tech has yet to see a fitting successor, but the production opened up a lot of questions about how robotics can be used in stage production. In the meantime, the University of Sussex is teaching robots to perform their own opera. This isn’t likely to sound as great as “Death and the Powers,” but researchers hope the process will gauge the ability of artificial intelligence to perform the high-level cognitive functions necessary for musical drama.

Sleep No More

A scene from “Sleep No More.”

IMMERSIVE THEATER: Immersive theater is not so much a revolution tied to a specific piece of equipment as it is an approach to drama that invites technology we otherwise might never have considered. Take The Industry’s groundbreaking “Hopscotch.” Cars have been around for well over 100 years, but did we ever think of producing an opera amidst a fleet of them? No – not until creatives started asking how we might expand the already all-consuming nature of good art. It’s worthwhile to nod to a (some might argue the) pioneer among immersive theater, Punchdrunk’s “Sleep No More,” which began touring its site-specific reinterpretation of “Macbeth” as far back as 2003. While not an opera, “Sleep No More” did demonstrate how wildly successful immersive theater could be, and it’s interesting to note that the production established its now-permanent installation in Manhattan in 2011 – right around the same time (and place) that a lot of today’s up-and-coming DIY opera composers were getting initial projects off the ground. Since then, immersive theater has started popping up all over the country. Yuval Sharon’s opera company The Industry is perhaps the finest example within music, but it’s not the only one: The Welsh National Opera has been adding immersive elements to many of its productions, and Denver’s newest opera company is entirely dedicated to immersive productions. 

Permadeath

A scene from “Permadeath.”

VIDEO GAMES/AUGMENTED REALITY: If you’ve been jonesing for your augmented reality fix but you abandoned your Pokémon GO account long ago, why not head to the opera? Specifically to “PermaDeath,” the latest collaboration between creator and librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs and composer Dan Visconti, set to premiere this September. Opera has long made appearances in video games, but now a video game becomes the setting for an opera: “PermaDeath” tells the story of Sonny, a terminally ill gamer who risks killing her beloved avatar — for good — in an in-game tournament that would provide her with real-life medical care funding. “PermaDeath” also comes with an app that allows audiences to interact with different elements of the storyline. 

Welsh National Opera has to make another appearance: They too have been experimenting with augmented reality. Their summertime premiere of “Rhondda Rips it Up!,” about Welsh suffragette and businesswoman Margaret Haig Thomas (also known as Lady Rhondda) features a mixed reality (MR) installation that allows audiences to interact with a physical space via their iPads.  

BINAURAL TECHNOLOGY: Binaural recording, 3-D sound, spatial sound – whatever you want to call it, you can think of it as surround sound on steroids. Or, you could just think of it as … sound. After all, binaural recordings are meant to simulate the way we experience sound in real life – that is, from sources that are above us, below us, to the right and left, near and far. Those infinite combinations of variables are what allow us to pinpoint the location of a sound – which in turn allows our brains to aurally map a three-dimensional space. While it’s important to note that 3-D sound is not a new idea, it is newly popular, largely thanks to the development of VR. And of course, opera houses are capitalizing on that popularity. Opera Australia staged a 2012 production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s “Die tote Stadt” that “streamed” in the sound of an orchestra playing in a neighboring studio; the Zurich Opera House installed a 3-D sound system in early 2016, where it remains in use to this day. 


I’d like to give a shout-out to SmartEyeglass, which provides multilingual subtitles in real time, and the ever-sacred Metropolitan Opera’s HD Broadcasts. It would be easy to keep this list going, but what can we learn from it? Clearly, that opera is loath to become some dusty plaything of the past. But more to the point, it’s that audiences today crave transformative experiences – and opera is apt to provide them.

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Elizabeth Nonemaker

Elizabeth Nonemaker is a composer and arts journalist. She co-launched the arts publication Ampersand, and has worked for Children’s Radio Foundation and KPCC’s “The Frame.” …more 

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