I sat down today with Michael Mori and Debi Wong; the co-directors of Tapestry’s upcoming show TapEX: Augmented Opera to talk about the show and issues around it. The TapEX series is all about low cost, low risk experimentation. Previous shows have combined opera with punk, turntables and Persian rapping. This time it’s about exploring ways of using digital technology to enhance opera performance and enable the creation of new kinds of opera. It’s also about how can technology be incorporated in an affordable way. Conventional studio produced VR comes in around $30,000 per minute which might be OK for the Royal Shakespeare Company but is way out of reach of an indie company. And, of course, it can’t be about the technology itself. It needs to be about how we create art with it.
There will be two technology dimensions to the show. The story itself is one of technology. It deals with a a technology start up that offers Elysium, a new cloud-based technology that reimagines the afterlife as a perfect curation of our best memories selected and reshaped by machine learning. We will see three singers portray aspects of the memories of the character Eurydice. Some of the issues touched on include such questions as “Can only the rich afford immortality?” and “What happens when we give our memories to the private sector?” That the show takes place at Google subsidiary Sidewalk Labs adds a contemporary and very real edge to these questions.
Then there’s the technology used to present the show. It will use a kind of augmented reality (150 VR headsets were not in the budget!). We will see Eurydice’s Virtual Reality but presented as 2D projections. Her “reality” as been created from the ground up as a virtual space with no physical modelling. There will be a 360 degree soundscape and some of the music will be played by composer Benton Roark on an experimental microtonal keyboard capable of 28 tones per octave. There will also be opportunities pre performance for audience members to explore some aspects of the VR world.
As you do, we also talked about some of the broader implications of digital technology in the opera world. Opera is kind of schizophrenic about technology. I don’t know any house that doesn’t use sophisticated electric lighting but mucking about with sound is a big taboo (except of course for all that acoustic conditioning that we don’t talk about). So can technology be used to create new kinds of shows in different venues? (and if we do so is it still “opera”?). Can this help create that elusive new audience? Can new technologies be incorporated in the “Temple of Tradition” without killing off what’s left of the (declining) traditional audience? Interesting questions indeed.
TapEX: Augmented Opera runs at Sidewalk Labs from November 20th to 23rd.