Image courtesy of Hotel Pro Forma

DIY Electronic Productions Are Challenging What Opera Can Be

Welcome to opera in the 21st century.

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Jul 5 2017, 8:18pm

Image courtesy of Hotel Pro Forma

What if you walked into an opera and could read the thoughts of the person singing? Or if they started pumping house music from the speakers? Or if the opera was a videogame that you play on your computer? In the brave new world of fringe and avant-garde operas that incorporate technology and electronic music, all these things are not just possible—they've already been done.

Introducing a Moog synthesizer or VR set into an opera house can feel like nothing more than just blowing a little dust off the old wig. What's truly exciting is how this new wave of operas is using electronic music and emerging technology like VR to disrupt traditional operatic conventions, reduce production costs, open the field to eccentric or marginalized voices, and consequently challenge our very conception of what opera can be.

This kind of change is much-needed in the opera world, which in some cases has been struggling to stay afloat financially. In 2013, the New York City Opera—the city's second largest opera company—even filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. The problem, according to a 2015 Pitchfork feature, is that previous attempts to stage daring, modern productions at large opera houses in New York have not been lucrative, signaling that older, traditional audiences are uninterested in reinventing the wheel. Even the general manager of the centuries-old Metropolitan Opera admitted in a 2014 interview with DW that "grand opera is in itself a kind of a dinosaur of an art form."

"There's this sexy underground of young people all over the place creating a lot of new work."—Tête à Tête founder Bill Bankes-Jones

Bill Bankes-Jones, founder of the boundary-pushing, London-based opera company Tête à Tête, says he sees a rift between the traditionalists and experimentalists in the opera world today. "[There's] this feeling that it's splitting in two," he explains. "There's this old white man opera going on … and at the same time there's this sexy underground of young people all over the place creating a lot of new work."

It's easy to assume that the progressive potential of these new DIY operas lies in their use of the latest technology. Death and the Powers: The Robots' Opera, which premiered in 2010 in Monaco, is a prime example—Tod Machover, a composer and professor at the MIT Media Lab, built a chorus of singing robots, a musical chandelier, and an animatronic library to stage the piece. However, while an impressive feat, all this fancy gadgetry doesn't actually represent a giant leap forward for the opera world, which has always relied on technological advancements throughout its history.

A Hotel Pro Forma production (Image courtesy of Hotel Pro Forma)

In the early days of the medium, Italian-born composer Giacomo Torelli was already creating elaborate stage machinery to fly performers over the audience, imitate weather effects, and quickly change from one elaborate scene to another.

Staging became more important in the 19th century, as European opera houses began to remake old operas from the 17th and 18th centuries, using new technology and special effects to keep audiences engaged with these familiar classics. According to Bankes-Jones, something similar is happening with large opera houses today: "All this technology goes to endlessly trying and preserve [the canonical operas]," he says.

Electronic instruments are also not entirely new in the classical world. Olivier Messiaen used three early electronic instruments called ondes Martenots in his 1937 opera Saint-François d'Assise. Even earlier was the theremin, an instrument developed in 1928 in the early Soviet Union that senses the position of the player's hand with an antenna and requires no physical contact to play.

Therefore, what makes this new wave of electronic operas revolutionary is not their use of technology itself, but the ways in which that technology is democratizing and diversifying the playing field.

"This word 'opera' scares people away."—Hotel Pro Forma founder Kirsten Dehlholm

Similar to the way laptops and programs like Ableton and FL Studio have made it possible to put out an EP from your bedroom with minimal overhead costs, operas no longer have to be immense, Hollywood-budget affairs. Instead, a backdrop can be thrown on stage in about the time it takes to power up a projector, and you don't need to set up a pit orchestra to provide music, just a couple of speakers—thus allowing operas to be produced by smaller, fringe companies.

"You can create any kind of sound world," Bankes-Jones says about the new possibilities that laptops offer. "I've heard stuff that was unthinkable 20 to 30 years ago."

The potential for low-budget stagings of new operas also makes them perfect playgrounds for artists to take risks on wild new ideas that big opera houses wouldn't dare gamble on. In London-based company Silent Opera's 2013 staging of Orfeo, for example, participants were given wireless headphones. If they took them off, they heard a standard baroque performance. Put them on, and they heard a pre-recorded mix of the characters' thoughts.

Then, there are operas created in the past few years so alien that you'd be hard pressed to call them operas at all. These productions are not just pushing the envelope—they're ripping it up, dousing it in gasoline, and chucking it into an incinerator.

In 2013, London saw the staging of 1513: A Ship's Opera by musician and sculptor Richard Wilson and British art duo Zatorski + Zatorski . The opera took place on the river Thames, and the only instruments were a small fleet of nine historic ships on the water "singing" a kind of maritime aria with their whistles, bells, sirens, and cannons—thereby challenging the idea of opera as a human-sung artform and whether it even necessitates a stage.

On a similar tip, Stephen Crowe, who the media has called "the future of new opera, has recently produced gems such as a cowboy opera featuring electronic instruments and costumed pterodactyls, and another piece called " James Joyce Song Cycle," which draws its lyrics from the dirty sex-letters Joyce sent his wife—lampooning opera's tendency to reach for blood-and-thunder drama in its librettos.

Actors performing an outdoor scene in a Tête à Tête production called "Chance" (Image courtesy of Tête à Tête)

Another example of a piece that toys with what opera can be is Oikospiel. Launched online in 2017 by musical artist David Kanaga, it is an absurdist videogame retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, where audience members play-through and listen to the opera on their home computers. The piece comes with it's own 56-page, tongue-in-cheek libretto, a fully electronic soundtrack, and a sort of "box office" where you can buy a "ticket" (download the game) for the opera.

Hotel Pro Forma's 72-year-old founder and artistic director, Kirsten Dehlholm, fully realizes the importance of revitalizing opera and making it relevant to 21st century audiences. "This word, 'opera,' scares people away," says Dehlholm.

Since 1985, her avant-garde "musical laboratory" has put on more than 50 works in over 30 countries that fuse opera with EDM, contemporary dance, and unorthodox stage designs.
A lover of electronic music, Dehlholm has paired some of her favorite artists like The Knife, Mt Sims, and Planningtorock with classical composers like John Cage to produce the music for her genre-bending productions.

Though she says the classical opera world is "curious" about her work, Dehlholm says they are only tepidly allowing this kind of club-born music into their gilded halls. "[Only] a few [opera houses] are willing to take risks," she says.

The Metropolitan Opera, for example, has only cautiously begun allowing electronics into its hall over the past few decades. In late 2016, the Met finally put on a performance of L'Amour de Loin by Helsinki-born composer Kaija Saariaho—sixteen years after the opera, which subtly blends electronic music with medieval harmonies and North African rhythms, premiered to wide acclaim in Europe. (It's also worth noting that L'Amour de Loin was first opera composed by a woman to be shown at the Met in over 100 years.)

On the other hand, diversity is a priority for Bankes-Jones' own opera company, Tête a Tête. Since its inception in 1997, the opera company has created a whopping 500 new productions, including "As One" by Mark Campbell, which tackles complex transgender issues through its protagonist's journey through gender transition. Debuting in Brooklyn in 2014, the piece is another example of operas taking on timely and socially conscious subject matter.

While the majority of what you see at major opera houses today will still be old hat, the digital revolution has paved the way for new voices and a diversification of social perspectives to make their way into the field. If what's happening on the fringe of today's opera scene is any indication of what's to come, then hold onto your wigs. The drop has yet to come, but the buildup is now.