Making opera accessible through digital innovationFebruary 26, 2018
(WNO) is one of the UK’s best-loved opera companies, with a long history of engaging with new audiences through affordable ticket pricing, touring large and small venues and ground-up outreach projects. We hear from David Massey, Digital Producer, on how digital is enabling WNO to reimagine opera, forge new collaborations and introduce future generations to the art form. The Great West region is widely considered to be a UK leader in the arts, creative industries and digital innovation – what happens when these sectors collide?
At Welsh National Opera, we are always seeking new artistic projects to make opera more accessible. We are aware of the stereotypes that still cling to the art form – many will say that it’s not for them and it’s too expensive, too long, or too formal. Part of our mission is to banish these misconceptions and to introduce new audiences across Wales and England to the joy of opera. The shift towards digital has enabled us to do this in ways that push the boundaries of technological and artistic innovation. We are committed to transforming opera through digital, and creating exciting projects onstage as well as off.
Laying the foundations
Since the launch of our Digital strategy in 2015, we have been developing a reputation as an opera company at the forefront of digital innovation. This began with Field: a haunting, immersive artwork commemorating the 923 Royal Welch Fusiliers who died at the Battle of the Somme during WW1 and who have no known grave. 923 orb-like lights created the appearance of a ‘sea of poppies’ based outside of the entrance to our home, Wales Millennium Centre, to coincide with the world premiere of the opera In Parenthesis. Over 50,000 visitors came to experience Field and it was fantastic to see so many people engaging with the arts outside the theatre.
We also experimented with Xbox Connect to create a motion tracking experience which served as a roll call for the fallen soldiers of the Somme. These projects attracted a lot of attention locally and nationally and successfully laid the foundations for digital projects to come.
The power of collaboration
We wanted to build on this success and transform the way audiences experience classic scenes from two iconic operas (Madam Butterfly and The Magic Flute) by using the most immersive digital tool available to us: virtual reality. We knew that we couldn’t do this alone, and with the industry moving so fast we wanted to collaborate with an experienced VR production house who could give us a real insight into how we might tell this story and help us to create something extraordinary. So we put out tenders and were thrilled when REWIND decided to apply as they are widely considered to be UK leaders in virtual reality (VR), if not further afield. We had seen their work at various VR experiences and we were incredibly impressed with the team’s expertise, vision and how they might translate our opera world into a new form of immersive storytelling.
It became clear from the outset that we would want to place audiences at the heart of the experience by introducing a performer into the VR environment. With this detail in mind we also needed to find a suitable motion capture screen. The University of Bath’s Centre for Analysis of Motion, Entertainment Research and Applications (CAMERA) not only provided the technology but also an appetite for pioneering research and development. Working collaboratively with these partners, REWIND and CAMERA, was a rich learning experience for us, and we hope for them!
With our Madam Butterfly experience, Soprano Karah Son, our Cio-Cio San, was filmed on a motion capture screen with sensors attached to capture her physical movements. REWIND did a lot of R&D with the academics involved at CAMERA, who wanted to try attaching sensors to Cio-Cio San’s sleeves to emulate and capture the fluidity of her kimono. The end result combined Google Dream technology with the motion capture to create an immersive VR experience.
The physical and the virtual collided with the design of Magic Butterfly’s shipping container (supported by Associated British Ports), containing 10 VR headsets. The experience has toured to Cardiff, Birmingham, Liverpool and even the V&A in London, and we have welcomed over 10,000 visitors to date. We didn’t know how people would react to the experience and it has been incredibly powerful to see it first-hand. Many people have been moved by the Madam Butterfly piece particularly and it’s fantastic to see the way that digital can enhance the audience’s experience of these enduring operas. We’re very proud that the Madam Butterfly VR experience won the FMBE Gold Award for Creative Technology and that it was nominated for a VR Bound award.
This is just the beginning of our VR journey and we’re learning through these partnerships how to innovate and create meaningful experiences together.
What’s next for opera and digital?
Our next project will sit alongside Rhondda Rips it Up!, a newly commissioned opera that will bring the story of Margaret Haig (or ‘Lady Rhondda’) to life this summer.
Lady Rhondda was a suffragette (secretary of the Newport branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union) and made her own bomb kit, even attempting to blow up a post box! The WNO production based on her life is a music hall commission and will tour smaller venues across Wales and England in summer 2018. We will create a site-specific set for the project and audiences will be provided with iPads and greeted by a suffragette to combine live action, spatial sound and animation with an augmented world.
We are encouraged to see how the VR sector is maturing and developing in this region, complemented by the digital and creative industries. A VR South Wales cluster meeting was co-organised by Creative Cardiff and BAFTA Cymru, and we were invited to showcase Magic Butterfly with our colleagues from REWIND. The event demonstrated a real hunger for this kind of digital innovation. VR is definitely making its mark and beginning to break into the mainstream; we find there is a much better awareness of VR and digital, and a greater understanding of how it can take audiences on an immersive journey.
At Welsh National Opera we are constantly looking at ways we can enhance what we do using new technologies and embarking on (what we regard to be) almost mini R&D initiatives. Through this we are shifting the way we engage with new audiences, taking opera to the people within their own communities and contexts. The response to this strategy has been incredibly positive: 72%% of audiences for our digital interventions have never experienced opera or VR before. We hope that through collaborating with partners in the creative and digital industries, and in academia, we can continue to delight new audiences and open their eyes to the original immersive art form, opera.
David Massey is Digital Producer at the Welsh National Opera.
Madam Butterfly Virtual Reality Experience is being held on Wednesday 28 February and Thursday 1 March as part of the BBC Academy’s Digital Cities week in Cardiff.