In 'The Hubble Cantata,' opera blasts into the world of virtual reality

When 6,000 of her fellow audience members placed cardboard goggles on their faces to watch her five-minute virtual reality film, “Fistful of Stars,” Eliza McNitt’s heart broke from happiness.

She heard people shuffling around, then a brief silence followed by a collective gasp. This happened when viewers, many of whom had never experienced VR before, realized that they were being transported inside the Hubble Telescope in order to view the enigmatic enormity of the cosmos from its privileged perch beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

McNitt’s VR experience is the metaphorical tail on the multimedia comet that is classical composer Paola Prestini’s “The Hubble Cantata,” which swept up that huge audience in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park last summer and stages its West Coast premiere Wednesday at the Ford Theatres in Hollywood. Presented in association with Los Angeles Opera, the show features soprano Jessica Rivera and baritone Nathan Gunn singing a libretto by Royce Vavrek. Members of the L.A. Opera Orchestra, L.A. Opera Chorus and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus are also part of the production.

The performance is a cosmic collision of science and art on a novel scale, arriving at a time when experimental companies such as Yuval Sharon’s the Industry are using the classic art form to push technological and artistic innovation — and in the process draw a new generation of fans.

“What is so exciting about this project was being able to bring a new perspective to an art form that has existed for so long in order to provide a new way of experiencing it,” McNitt said by phone from New York. “I think storytelling is at the heart of all these experiences. We are trying to leave people with a sense of wonder and awe.”

Prestini first approached McNitt about the project a few years ago. She told McNitt that she wanted to create visuals for the performance, which tells the tale of an astrophysicist who looks to the mystery of the cosmos after losing his wife and child. This story finds its parallel in the life cycle of a star, which McNitt’s film reveals as viewers are transported to the Orion Nebula to watch a star be born, age and eventually explode in a supernova.

McNitt, 26, is a bit of a supernova herself. She is a two-time winner of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, a self-professed “certified nerd” whose research on honeybee colony collapse disorder earned her a visit to the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN. There, during a stroll in the particle accelerator, she fell “deeply in love with particle physics” and realized she needed to show the world that science is art.

This led to her first documentary film, “Requiem for the Honeybee,” which was broadcast internationally on C-SPAN. Since then, McNitt has made it her mission to create films that bring science to vivid life.

For “Fistful of Stars,” McNitt worked closely with astrophysicist Mario Livio, a prolific author who devoted more than 25 years to overseeing many of the Hubble Telescope’s discoveries. Livio also narrates “The Hubble Cantata,” and he helped McNitt hew true to the scientific realities of her interstellar journey.

Using real footage from the telescope, McNitt crafted a film that took scientific theories grounded in hard data and interpreted them through an artistic lens, making sure to consider crucial points of interest including the color of a star when it is born and what solar flares look like when they’re circling off the body of a star.

“I wanted to make people feel like they were seeing through the lens of the Hubble Telescope, and peering back in time billions of years ago to see what Hubble sees thousands of light years away,” she said.

The beauty of this particular collaboration, L.A. Opera President Christopher Koelsch said, is how seamlessly the various art forms blend together.

“You don’t want to allow the technology tail to wag the artistic dog,” he said. “There would be no point in incorporating this technology if it weren’t merited by the aesthetics of the piece.”

Koelsch is a big fan of Prestini’s work. The young composer, who in 2011 was named one of the top 100 composers under 40 by National Public Radio, is part of an exciting group of new music innovators whom Koelsch affectionately calls the “iPod generation of composers.”

“They are classically trained musicians who are as equally influenced by pop culture and rock ’n’ roll as they are by Wagner,” he said, adding that the kind of experimentation Prestini has lent to her work will help “shape what masterpieces come out of the next 50 years.”

Ford Theatres’ interim executive director, Olga Garay-English, is welcoming “The Hubble Cantata” to Los Angeles as part of a 10-part series featuring work by contemporary artists called “Ignite @ the Ford!”

“It’s not an expensive technology, so we’re able to share this for free with all of our patrons who come to the event,” she says of cardboard goggles that fit to audience members’ personal mobile phones for viewing “Fistful of Stars.” They will download the film in advance, so that when the cue comes to don the goggles, they are ready for experience.

“As the music crescendos, you meld into the cosmos,” she said. “What can be accomplished these days is extraordinary.”

Also extraordinary, added McNitt, is the collective nature of the experience. VR has traditionally been a solitary experience, with viewers isolated in headsets and headphones, separate from the rest of the world while becoming part of another world entirely.

“I think there is something very special about embracing the flaws of that idea to create this communal experience where you can not only listen to this thunderous score, but listen to the person next to you reacting to that experience,” McNitt said.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘The Hubble Cantata’

Where: Ford Theatres, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Tickets: Start at $65 (subject to change)

Info: (323) 461-3673, www.fordtheatres.org

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

@jessicagelt

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