Do you think opera is old fashioned? Could arias with virtual reality and 360-degree cameras be on the horizon?
In 1597, the world’s first opera was performed in Florence, Italy. More than 400 years later, the venerable art form is still presented in largely the same form, with the world’s best-trained singers and symphony musicians performing without amplification in large theater halls.
And therein lies the problem. Opera is the world’s most expensive art form to produce, but the audience is getting older and declining. Can opera in the 21st century reduce costs and expand audiences by embracing new ideas and technology?
Answering that question has been the goal of Opera Hack, an “ideation summit” created by the San Diego Opera in 2019.
On November 8, the San Diego Opera announced the winners of its third Opera Hack Contest. Three ideas created by experts from the art and technology industries won $5,000 grants to continue developing their ideas. These winning concepts could one day lead to opera productions with technology used in role playing and virtual reality video games, as well as motion capture techniques used in movies.
Opera Hack 3.0 attracted participants from the United States, Australia, England, Italy, Canada, Scotland, Lithuania and the Netherlands. Here’s a look at the three winning projects:
Baroque Reality: Accessible Augmented Reality Stagecraft
The Baroque Reality team, which includes three opera singers, aims to produce an abridged and female-centric version of Handel’s 1735 Baroque opera “Alcina” that will use both mixed and augmented reality technology to enhance its storytelling. Audience members watching an opera on stage can enhance their experience through the use of technology available on a table or mobile phone. The audience could use their device to view virtual landscapes and read real-time stories about characters during the performance. Body tracking technology can also allow audiences to watch the opera from the performers’ digital avatars. At the heart of the technology is the UnReal Engine, a popular gaming platform that creates real-time three-dimensional video. The project’s creative team includes singer and software developer Esha Datta, singer and teacher Lindsey Blackhurst, singer and voice professor Mitchell Hutchings, and composer and stage director Sarah Hutchings.
Composer Luciana Perc and librettist Jacqueline Goldfinger’s new opera, “Metropolis 3.0,” is adapted from “Metropolis,” Fritz Lang’s 1927 German Expressionist film about a clash between the rich and the poor in a futuristic society where robots are built to replace human workers. In this version of “Metropolis” almost 100 years after the release of Lang’s film, robots are now increasingly being used for labor in a world characterized by climate change, global inequality and poverty. The opera will feature technological tools that include motion capture, augmented reality, production mapping, motion tracking and live video. Other members of the “Metropolis 3.0” creative team are developer-director Eddie DeHais, technical developer Ian Garrett, designer Yelena Babinskaya, dramaturg Megan Cooper and singer Alejandra Martinez.
Mechanical engineer Nam Nguyen’s immersive performance-capture concept would allow audiences to see an opera from multiple perspectives, ranging from a technology-free view from the seat in the auditorium to the perspectives of what the singers see from the stage. This will be achieved by using 360-degree cameras hidden in the stage scenery and in custom helmets worn by the performers. Audience members could change their point of view at any time during the performance using a mobile phone or tablet.
San Diego Opera will soon announce plans for its fourth Opera Hack. The program is made possible by an Innovation Grant from Opera America supported by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.
Some of the winning projects from previous Opera Hacks used technology to help opera companies create and present operas. A program called Opera Map would allow companies to digitally map their scene to design landscapes with drag-and-drop interior design technology. The MusiCue software would allow stage managers and production designers to embed sound, lighting, projection and musician cues into a digital version of the sheet music. And the Performance Stock Exchange would set up a website where opera companies could communicate with each other about renting sets, costumes, props and more.