Cunning and magical
For some years now, the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff has been experimenting with ways of attracting new target groups in addition to its classic concert and opera audience. Under the unprepossessing title “Digital Projects”, the house is conducting pioneering work in the field of music theatre and interactive technology. Virtual realities, stunningly lifelike animations, digital avatars and gaming elements – it’s all there in Cardiff.
Five wooden arches standing in the foyer of Cardiff’s Millennium Centre, home of the Welsh National Opera (WNO), make a pretty arrangement. They are there to invite opera enthusiasts (and non-enthusiasts) to get to know Leoš Janáček’s “Cunning Little Vixen”. The archway is inspired by historical pop-up books which, when opened, conjure a 3-dimensional space out of a row of paper frames. Here, a tunnel is created so high you can walk through it, which calls to mind the passing of time, like the lifecycle of the fox described in the opera, or the yearly cycle of the seasons. At the foot of each arch, bench-like bumps offer a place to sit and rest while woodland sounds whisper from integrated speakers. But the audible set is not all on offer.
David Massey, Digital Producer at the WNO, gives me an iPhone and a pair of soundproof headphones, opens an app and shows me what to do. The cellphone camera is activated, I look at my surroundings through the lens. Janáček’s powerful, scintillating music strikes up, the world around me recedes, and the tunnel transforms. The app adds all manner of elements to the real scene. An animated vixen appears on the screen, turns impatiently towards me and walks off ahead, to the first arch. I follow.
Accessibility created by interaction
The name “Digital Projects” sounds unspectacular. Indeed, on the Welsh National Opera website, the department – run by “Youth and Community” under Emma Flatley – is hidden among descriptions of the opera’s educational work in the “Take Part” section. There are a few pictures and a short account of previous projects, nothing more. But its aspirations are high. In 2015, the house, then still under the direction of David Pountney, decided to supplement its conventional opera repertoire with works that appeal to a completely different target group than the classic operagoers and concert audiences. It aims to do so via a high degree of interaction and technology.
Directing butterflies in a ship’s container
In 2017, the team started projects with two of the world’s best-known operas. Mozart’s “Magic Flute” and Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” were chosen for trial runs of their virtual opera realities. A ship’s container was made into a travelling pop-up theatre. There is a velvet curtain, with neither a stage nor an auditorium behind it but ten virtual reality sets: Google’s Daydream head-mounted displays (with Google’s Pixel Smartphones), along with the dedicated controller and headphones.
Soprano Karah Son was filmed singing via Motion Capture. Software developers at a company named Rewind then devised a virtual soprano singer based on the footage of Son’s movements. The virtual singer inhabits a world à la Japanese drawings, with a rocky coastline and stylized tree. The rustling foliage gradually turns into Cio-Cio-san, Puccini’s tragic protagonist, pining for her faithless lover (all recordings were made by house staff).
Although the users cannot walk around in the scene, they can turn their head and body and look around at all sides. And holding the controller they can direct swarms of butterflies through the air.
In the Mozart part, users can play the hero Tamino, rather than just watching, and take the magic instrument into their own hands. Moving the flute to a certain position using the controller, the outline of an animal appears. By tracing round this line, the three-dimensional creature emerges from the forest. In this way, a lion, monkey, bison, rhinoceros and antelope are conjured, one by one. Once the animal gathering is complete, the game ends automatically.
An avatar in a live context
The project “Rhondda Rebel” goes one step further. Here, again, the WNO has collaborated with Rewind to experiment with combining live performance and Augmented Reality (AR) for the first time. Can a virtual character interact with real, flesh-and-blood performers? The vehicle for the try-out is “Rhondda Rips it Up?”, Elena Langer’s musical comedy about the suffragette Margaret Haig Thomas.
Librettist Emma Jenkins cooperated with the digital department to create a scene in the courtroom of Sessions House in Usk near Newport, where “Lady Rhondda” was put on trial in 1913 for attempting to blow up a post box. A policeman welcomes the audience and presents them with the evidence before they move into the courtroom, equipped with iPads and given careful instructions. Here, an eight-person jury and a judge are waiting. When light markers show, the audience point their tablets at the indicated positions in the space, such as the dock, and a digital avatar is added to the scene on their screens.
To create this effect, mezzo-soprano Madeleine Shaw, who plays the title role in Elena Lange’s opera, was filmed using greenscreen technology. On the users’ iPads, the avatar can be superimposed on to the live scene – and hey presto! A virtual Landy Rhondda can be seen interacting with the judge (the actor controls the timing). Musically, an avatar cannot live up to a live performer, but as a means of creating an impression of the past, AR opens interesting possibilities (it’s not for nothing that it is often used in museums).
Tickets are available for the twenty-minute show, but they don’t cost anything, and only five or six visitors are admitted at a time. And that is where a fundamental problem lies. These high-tech experiments cost between £70,000 and £140,000. The mission of conducting research and developing technologies might justify the costs now, but it won’t always stay that way. “That’s why it’s so important that these productions can go on tour,” explains Massey. “We have to be able to make them as broadly available as possible, send them to festivals and museums.” There is, then, also a mobile version of “Rhondda Rebel”.
Faster vixen, go!
The cunning little vixen is still waiting, animated in lifelike three dimensions (via Apple ARKit) by the immersion specialists of the company Arcade. Every arch contains a game option that is started as soon as the camera is directed at certain markers in the illustration. A sense of childlike awe is exactly what distinguishes the music of this late work of Janáček’s, and the installation really manages to capture this charm. In the end, the fox (who dies in the opera) fragments into a mass of petals, the camera changes into selfie-mode and a fox mask is superimposed on to the user’s face. It’s a magical experience, which convincingly conveys the essence of the piece but is also just fun itself. Nobody expects the visitors to head off and buy tickets for the actual opera afterwards: the WNO’s Digital Projects are artworks in their own right.
Still, staff at the WNO are now working on integrating virtual technology in a classic opera production – if only to make the experience accessible to a broader public. What exactly he is planning, David Massey won’t say. “Perhaps something with holograms,” is all he will reveal, as he chuckles enigmatically.