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 the same form, with the world’s best-trained symphony singers and musicians performing without amplification in grand theater halls.
And therein lies the problem. Opera is the most expensive art form in the world to produce, but its audience is aging and declining. Can 21st century opera reduce costs and expand its audience by embracing new ideas and technologies?
Answering this question was 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 in the arts and technology industries won $5,000 grants to further develop their ideas. These winning concepts could one day lead to opera productions featuring technology used in role-playing games 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 is an overview of the three winning projects:
Baroque reality: staging accessible in augmented reality
Baroque Reality’s team, which includes three female opera singers, aims to produce an abridged, female-centric version of Handel’s 1735 Baroque opera “Alcina” that would use both mixed and augmented reality technology to improve the storytelling. Audiences watching an opera on stage could amplify their experience through the use of technology accessible on a table or mobile phone. Audiences could use their device to view virtual scenery and read character stories in real time during the performance. Body-tracking technology could also allow audience members to see the opera from the perspective of the performers’ digital avatars. At the heart of the technology is UnReal Engine, a popular gaming platform that creates three-dimensional video in real time. The project’s creative team includes singer and software developer Esha Datta, singer and teacher Lindsey Blackhurst, singer and voice teacher Mitchell Hutchings, and songwriter and 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 rich and poor in a futuristic society where robots are built to replace human workers. In this version of “Metropolis,” nearly 100 years after the release of Lang’s film, robots are now increasingly used for labor in a world ravaged by climate change, global inequality and poverty. The opera will feature technology tools that include motion capture, augmented reality, production mapping, motion tracking and live video. Other members of the “Metropolis 3.0” creative team are director-developer Eddie DeHais, technical developer Ian Garrett, designer Yelena Babinskaya, playwright Megan Cooper and singer Alejandra Martinez.
Mechanical engineer Nam Nguyen’s immersive performance capture concept would allow audience members to watch an opera from multiple angles, ranging from a tech-free view from their seat in the auditorium to perspectives of what the singers see from the stage. This would be accomplished using 360-degree cameras that are hidden in the stage set and in custom helmets worn by the performers. Viewers could switch views at any time during the performance using a mobile phone or tablet.
The San Diego Opera will soon announce plans for its fourth Opera Hack. The program is made possible by an Opera America Innovation Grant supported by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.
Some of the winning projects from previous Opera Hacks have used technology to help opera companies create and present opera. Software called Opera Map would allow businesses to digitally map their scene to design sets with drag-and-drop interior design technology. MusiCue software would allow stage managers and production designers to integrate sound, lighting, projection and musician cues into a digital version of the paper musical score. And Performance Stock Exchange would set up a website where opera companies could communicate with each other about renting sets, costumes, props and more.