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‘Anything could happen’: inside the world’s first virtual reality opera

The Guardian - Tue May 4 16:09

“Start with your feet, Earth-kin,” coos soprano Anna Dennis into my ear. I’m standing in the small space that is hosting the world’s first ever virtual reality opera. I have a headset, headphones and a backpack. The Royal Opera House is calling this the opera Tardis; to me it seems more like a walk-through art installation with bespoke soundtrack. Whatever this is, it isn’t opera as we know it.

Current, Rising was conceived two years ago, long before our Covid age, but is now serendipitously topical. It explores what the blurb calls “ideas of isolation, connection, and collective reimagination”. It wasn’t designed to be opera for our socially distant age, but it works that way. Only four people can enter the opera Tardis at one time, and we’re told to keep one metre apart (tricky since in hyperreality judging real-world distances is a dilly of a pickle). But this isn’t just opera for our Covid age, but victim of it: due to open in December 2020, it fell prey to lockdown.

The audio babble from news and coastguard broadcasts has died down. Newspaper headlines that have covered walls, ceiling and floor fade. A variety of effects are transmitted to our headsets by unseen technicians via the computers in our backpacks. We have become virtual reality avatars: the other three of my party now look like grey siblings of the Blue Man Group. The opera, perhaps, has begun.

The strings of the seven-piece Chroma ensemble accompany Dennis who is singing a hummable, overdubbed canon with herself. Samantha Fernando’s music (with words by Melanie Wilson) is piped into our headsets throughout the entire 15-minute experience. A doorway to the left is framed with light. We have been told this is a visual cue and to walk through each light-framed door on our nocturnal journey. It is inspired by Prospero liberating Ariel at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. We have become VR Ariels, roaming a simulated globe at night.

Current, Rising is brief but so much is packed into it that it feels rather overwhelming. In the first room Escher-like projections of impossible staircases and buildings extend infinitely in all directions, but with your route clearly signposted, there is little freedom to explore these strange new worlds. In one, dancers’ avatars, created by motion-capture technology and projected on to huge screens, writhe in sync with the music. In another, animated graphs like giant ECG monitors mimic the rise and fall of musical lines.

It’s a strange, concentrated, occasionally moving and baffling quarter of an hour. Singer and musicians don’t lead the action as opera usually would, and very nearly become ancillary to an experience that is multi-sensory but overwhelmingly visual.

“This isn’t the future of opera,” director Netia Jones tells me, “but it could be one of its futures.” Jones and the rest of the creative team use grand words like gesamtkunstwerk and verfremdungseffekt to explain what they’re trying to achieve.

The former, meaning total or integrated work of art, was adopted by Wagner to account for how his revolution in opera at Bayreuth would unite music, drama, dance and theatrical effects. While Jones doesn’t care for Wagner, she’s attempting something neo-Wagnerian, a gesamtkunstwerk using virtual reality. “What is opera?” she asks. “The only definition I think that makes sense is ‘a theatrical experience led by sung music’. Beyond that, you can do anything.” Directing this opera is certainly nothing like making sure the tenor stands on his mark. “I would often find myself asking Simon [Reveley, CEO of Figment Productions] whether he could do something strange like make it rain upside down, and he would say ‘Sure, why not?’”

But I suspect what is most radical about Current, Rising is not the technology but how the creative process has been flipped. Rather than the composer setting the librettist’s words to music and leaving the music to be interpreted by directors, designers and musicians, it was Annette Mees, head of Covent Garden’s Audio Labs, and Reveley who initially developed the idea of a hyperreal opera and only later brought on board creatives such as Jones, Fernando and Wilson, CGI director Joanna Scotcher and choreographer Anna Morrissey.

As for that other big word, verfremdungseffekt (estrangement effect), that’s achieved by taking us out of the quotidian into strange transcendental realms where anything, apparently, could happen.

Jones argues that virtual reality “challenges the traditional hierarchies of opera and classical music ... It is the most democratic of all media – it can subvert the laws of physics so why would it need to conform to the usual rules of cultural exchange?”

For her, the game-changing aspect to this is that it puts the spectator centre stage. However, gamers used to being protagonists with tasks to complete and monsters to murder may find the experience a little underwhelming as we essentially remain voyeurs, albeit at the heart of the action as never before. This isn’t opera where you can close your eyes to ignore the visual fatuities of a director and enjoy the music, but a more synthesised art work demanding the spectator forge connections between what they are seeing, feeling and hearing.

Meanwhile, Jones tells me she’s already developing a new VR opera. “Working in this medium lit fire to my imagination,” she says. She hopes that audiences emerging from lockdown will feel similarly when they visit the opera Tardis. “I can’t wait to go back in myself – it’s been weird to be in the real world for this long.”