Re-imagining opera for new audiences: behind the scenes at VR

I want to extend the boundaries of what’s possible with live theatre and integrate digital as part of the norm of what we do.

So says Emma Flatley, Director of Engagement & Partnerships at Welsh National Opera (WNO), whose forward-thinking digital strategy for the company was the impetus behind 2017’s Magic Butterfly Virtual Reality production, a world-first for an opera company in using VR to re-imagine operatic scenes.

The rush to embrace VR in the gaming, film and TV sectors has described as by experts in the field as a “gold rush”, as practitioners work out how best to incorporate the technology that is being hailed as the future of entertainment. And the effect is starting to be felt in theatre.

In 2016, the National Theatre launched its immersive storytelling studio to develop new work using VR technologies and earlier this year announced a new partnership with technology strategy company Accenture. The Royal Shakespeare Company has partnered with Intel and The Imaginarium to the world's first live motion-capture performance in The Tempest, creating the character of Ariel in the play that has been described in reviews as “part flesh, part digital wizardry”.

And while the Royal Opera House has used VR technology to bring its audiences behind the scenes at the theatre and allow them stage access during performances, WNO has been the first to build an original immersive virtual opera experience that users can step into.

 

Creating an opera world-first

Working with award-winning immersive production studio REWIND, the company gave the classic operas Madam Butterfly and The Magic Flute an innovative makeover to create the fully responsive animated VR experience Magic Butterfly. Staged in a mobile shipping container designed by Gwyn Eiddior to help create a fully immersive experience that is both physical and virtual, it launched in Cardiff in July 2017 and will tour the UK until 2018.

“We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive feedback to the experience,” confirms David Massey, Digital Producer at WNO. “It was an emotional journey for people and some were moved to tears by it – and that includes people who have never experienced opera before.”

Launching the experience at a summer food festival might not sound like the most likely idea, but part of the organisation’s remit in creating the piece was to appeal to new audiences and to use technology to get people excited about opera. “The people we presented it to were mainly in their 20s and 30s, not necessarily switched on to opera and were very dubious initially, saying they didn’t think it would be for them. But they all went away saying how much they had enjoyed the experience.”

 

How does it work?

The Madam Butterfly experience combines motion capture, animation, music and technology, and is built in Unity for Google Daydream, using Houdini to create the visual effects. The team at REWIND worked with the Centre for the Analysis of Motion, Entertainment Research & Applications (CAMERA) at the University of Bath to film soprano Karah Son singing the production’s plaintive Un Bel Di (One Fine Day) and capture body and face motion data for the experience.

REWIND’s VR Director Greg Furber explains:

We wanted to be faithful to the opera’s main staging but to take it into a new space. So first we filmed the solo as the singer has traditionally performed it and she has played this role up to 1,000 times in her career. Then we told her to imagine that the audience was all around her, to imagine no constraints in her performance, to play the role exactly how she wanted to. And at that point she became the performance.

 

Greg revealed he was particularly excited about creating Madame Butterfly as a VR experience. “We created a mesmerising image of butterflies radiating out from her, which you could never stage in reality. But with VR we could create that scene and depict Madame Butterfly in a way that had never been done before.”

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The Magic Flute experience, also built in Unity, allows the user to conjure up to six animals using Google Daydream controller. As Emma Flatley explains:

The more you move, the more you’re able to orchestra the animals coming out of the forest. It’s a particularly good way for younger audiences, particularly children, to interact with the animals, hear the music and get enveloped in the experience.

 

Key challenges in this new world

The key challenge for this project centred around finding appropriate productions to stage in the new format and selecting the right platform to showcase them. David Massey:

Opera by its very nature is such an immersive experience and its impact can be emotionally overwhelming so we very much needed to replicate this experience by using VR. Emma and I also wanted to create a piece of art, not something that was just about ‘selling opera’ but a piece that would exist independently as a creative form.

 

Budget of course was also a factor, while maintaining the high production standards of WNO’s productions. Project costs for this type of work can be high, admits David, citing one of the key drawbacks of using VR technology in these relatively early stages of its development. Google Daydream was chosen, he explains, as the platform offered elements that weren’t available elsewhere. The fact that the Daydream headset uses a mobile phone to deliver visual content was also key for this touring production, dispensing with the need for PC-powered VR headsets.

The technology also gives the user a more immerse experience through its motion controller that facilitates motion input from the user and allows some content control. Greg attests that the team “pushed what was possible in Daydream, we were at the limits of what a phone can do”. Also pushing the boundaries was REWIND’s use of Houdini to create movement, a software package historically used in the VFX industry that had never been used in a real-time mobile experience before.

 

Where does opera go from here?

“I’m really pleased we’ve been able to do a first for opera,” says Emma Flatley. “For me that’s already an achievement.”

And she goes on to say it would be brilliant if the company can integrate digital technology in its live performances in the coming years.

We‘d like to think that we’re helping to lead the way in this technology and it might make other companies think about how they will deliver artistic work in new interesting, creative ways in the future. We’re always up for collaboration, we want to work with other experts to create work that could be considered pioneering within the sector. It would be great to think we could expand our portfolio of innovative work that will stand the test of time.