A Virtual Reality Opera in a Shipping Container
The Welsh National Opera in the UK has attempted to reach out to non-opera fans by developing and performing a Virtual Reality (VR) opera performance in a shipping container. While the idea is very good, it was panned in a review from a quite unlikely source…
Opera has an image problem
In its day, opera was the stadium rock concert for the elite. While today you may pay $150 for a ticket to see three piece alt-rock outfit Muse, in the 1800’s you may have gone to see The Magic Flute or Madam Butterfly. Thousands of opera houses were built around the world right up until the late 1900’s with the likes of the Sydney Opera House.
Opera is seen as an expensive, ‘establishment’ past-time populated by people who can understand an aria in Italian (or at least don’t mind reading the subtitles if they’re given). While the skill of the musicians and singers cannot be doubted at all, there is a lack of attendance by young people who don’t appreciate the art form of opera but may do if modern technology is introduced.
The upshot is that many opera outfits such as the Welsh National Opera are trying to ‘reach out to the kids’ by wild and whacky ways of presenting their art form. The latest attempt is in the Magic Butterfly installation that began its shows outside of the Millennium Centre in Cardiff, Wales.
What Magic Butterfly involves
One newspaper described how it worked: “As you enter the container, there are 10 VR devices and headphones which are donned to watch and listen to 10 minutes of ‘How Soft, How Strong Your Magic Sound’ and ‘One Fine Day’ from The Magic Flute and Madam Butterfly respectively… As the performance starts, a variety of animals arrive in front of you as you listen…”
The Welsh National Opera enthused in their press release regarding the shipping container opera performance, “It is the first time that an opera company has used VR in this way to re-imagine operatic scenes and create an immersive experience using responsive animation and sound.” Translated into English, that means “Yeah, let’s get down with the kids through virtual reality”.
The opera company paid a tech firm a considerable sum of money to develop a 3D experience that is supposed to transport the person in the shipping container into the worlds imagined by the writers of the operas in question. They combined two famous songs, from The Magic Flute and Madam Butterfly that over a total of four minutes is designed to give you a wonderful experience and perhaps force feed the imaginations of millennials that have been somewhat stunted through their always-online lifestyles and never really pausing to appreciate the world.
The reality of virtual reality
The idea of doing this is quite a good one. If done right it might tickle the fancy of a generation who, unless properly engaged, have the potential to kill off opera through their lack of interest as they grow up.
Criticism came from a surprising angle from a very surprising source. The Morning Star is a hard socialist newspaper and one might have expected it to have a pop at this for being more money wasted by an out of touch elitist organisation. Instead they just said that the result isn’t very good: “As the performance starts, a variety of animals arrive in front of you as you listen but they’re not terribly engaging. The sound quality of the headphones is poor and do nothing to enhance the experience.”
The left wing newspaper landed the killer blow by concluding, “The aim is laudable. Yet I doubt very much that tech-savvy young people will be enticed into opera through this poor experience.”
Better luck next time?
The concept is very good – use a shipping container with VR equipment to deliver an other-worldly experience to people sitting inside. If done right this could blow someone’s mind. One does wonder whether a better funded and more imaginative project from people who specialise in modern day stage shows could do just what the Welsh National Opera intended?
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