Opera plugs in to the high-tech

When Opera America holds its annual conference in Boston next month, futurist and technology guru Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of MIT’s Media Lab, will give the keynote address. In attendance will be America’s administrators, iPads in their hands and 3-D goggles in their pockets and purses. First, though, they’ll stand and recite the Opera Pledge of Allegiance to Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and P.T. Barnum.

Sessions will include speed tweeting, what brand of sneakers to wear when interviewing teenage software sorcerers who can design comic book special effects in your next Donizetti cycle, how to turn the computers back on when they crash and freeze stage machinery, how to get opera coverage in Wired magazine, and what will please the popcorn-crunching cineplex crowd.

I’m kidding, of course, but it’s a new decade in a still-new century, and Negroponte’s actual presence at least makes sense. Opera, from the time of the Baroque era to the present has been dedicated to new technology. But we have reached a point in which changes in tools and society are accelerating so fast, opera and its audience need help keeping up.

The trends are easy enough to identify. Polygamous opera, always a collaborative art, long ago tied the knot with film, television and video. The relationship is a mature one, no longer questioned. Lately, though, the offspring have led to increasing amounts of live opera transmitted into movie theaters. The DVD has become the industry-standard form of opera distribution in the home, even if few people have a stereo system meant for music hooked up to the TV or computer. That means that the visual elements of opera, for the first time in its history, threaten to overtake the musical.

There are also technology mavericks up to new tricks. Tod Machover, an imaginative composer who runs the MIT Media Lab’s Opera of the Future Group, is one such mad-scientist composer. His current experiment is “Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera,” in which a wealthy inventor toys with immortality by downloading himself into his household environment, sofa included. Recently produced in Boston and Chicago, the “robot opera"[ features a “robot chorus,” a musical chandelier and a protagonist who remains offstage but is electronically projected onto — and into — the animatronic set.


Not to be outdone, Trimpin — the Seattle-based German composer and odd-instrument builder of genius — has created an opera, “The Gurs Zyklus” (The Gurs Cycle), that will have its premiere at Stanford University on May 14. Unlike Machover, who works with an army of engineers and creative collaborators, Trimpin does everything himself. He describes his opera as a synchronization of “speech, voice, sound, video, projections and historical elements, including human tragedy.”

The opera concerns the destruction of the German Jewish community in his hometown of Gurs, near the French border, by the Nazis during the Second World War. For it, Trimpin has devised all manner of low-tech contraptions that are operated by sophisticated high-tech systems, one of which he calls a fire organ, to transport the listener onto the kinds of transports the Gurs prisoners might have experienced.

What Machover and Trimpin are up to is outright McLuhan-esque. Understanding that the medium is the message, they are changing opera from within. But they also remain on the fringes. Film and television, on the other hand, operate more on opera’s externals, but that seems to be where at least the biggest mainstream changes are taking place.

Film directors have long been staples in the opera house, and next up will be former Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam, who will make his debut on the lyric stage at English National Opera with a new production of Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust” on May 6. On an ENO website promotional video, Gilliam describes his progress from cartoons to animation to film to, finally, opera as “a good journey.”

But it is a journey that requires crossing borders and entering new territories. Film and opera are very different things, as Mike Figgis demonstrated when he directed his first opera, Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia,” also at ENO, in February. He shot four short films to precede scenes on the stage and give a new perspective on the story, and then staged the opera itself in a traditional manner. Rather than look for a chemical reaction by mixing opposite media compounds, Figgis carefully delineated the distinctions between opera and film, which made each vividly stand out and which turned off many an opera fan and critic.

While I thought this an important insight into how we perceive film and opera, don’t expect more of the same just now. Instead, special effects seem to be the safer direction for most opera companies hoping to keep pace with movies.

Not surprisingly, then, 3-D is all the rage. Moores Opera Center at the University of Houston mounted a production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” in January with 3-D projections. The Met promises the next step, 3-D without the goofy goggles, for Wagner’s “Siegfried” next year.

This is the spectacle of opera trying hard to be more movie-like, to retain the pleasure of the company of flesh-and-blood singers and of the live, unamplified (or possibly lightly enhanced) human voice all complemented by the immersive experience of cinema. The problem with the approach is that opera is an art form with artificial surfaces and a deep interior. Singing is not speaking but rather a projection of an inner voice. Too much exterior realism hinders the all-important suspension of disbelief.

Opera on the big screen in 3-D is maybe the worst of all possible worlds. Fraught with fakeness, “Carmen in 3D” hit the movies in March, a tacky Royal Opera effort to have Carmen’s leg dangle before your eyes. The Figgis production of “Lucrezia” was bizarrely shown in British movie houses and on the BBC in 3-D.

But the visual versus musical issues are problematic enough with 2-D. To begin with, what could be more artistically dispiriting than a Saturday morning in the mall, which is the time and place, at least in our time zone, for the Met’s HD broadcasts? The Met, moreover, has added a slice of reality TV to the lyric stew, with carefully staged glimpses of behind the scenes, and maybe even a quick comment from the conductor, as if he were a pitcher walking off the mound after striking out the side.

And yet, in the right hands, something uniquely involving can come from this. I saw John Adams’ “Nixon in China” at the Met two months ago and later at an encore screening of the HD broadcast. Peter Sellars directed both the production and the video, presenting riveting close-ups of intensesinging actors and revealing much that I had missed inside the theater.

Gordon Davidson, the founder of the Center Theatre Group and a director with a lifetime of experience in theater and opera, told me the other day that, while acknowledging all my objections to movie theater sound and distractions, he’s become hooked on HD. Finally, he said, the kind of meaningful acting that he struggled to get from singers in the opera house now is becoming the standard and not the exception.

Still, the bad has the potential of outweighing the admirable, if companies become so fixated on what looks good on the screen that they no longer put the music first and it simply becomes accompanimental. The better scenario is a hybrid of film and opera as a viable new art form.

There seems little doubt that opera of the future will move in and out of the virtual world. High- and low-tech will likely continue to coexist, experimentally as with Trimpin but also in adventurous big productions, as was the case with Achim Freyer’s “Ring” cycle at Los Angeles Opera last year.

And in the end, perhaps that kind of back to the future — that is, back to basics but with a contemporary twist — will renew opera. After all, once a visionary tycoon downloads himself into a sofa, what we have left is a sofa.