Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Metropolitan Opera: Lepage & Förterer bring new Advances in Performance Technology

So for those of you who know me, you know I had a brief stint in the opera world. I studied classical voice for 10 years, thus I've been fully exposed to the world of opera. During my second year of college, I decided to give up classical singing and traditional music and instead begin studying music technology. One of my reasons for diverging from that career path was my feelings about the genre and its future.

After talking with voice teachers, attending lectures, and seeing concerts I came to the conclusion that classical music is, in essence, a dead art-form. That is not to say that it cannot be appreciated, rather it means the creative juices that institute innovation and advancement have either run dry or have been scared off by the classical music community. This statement is obviously up for debate, and is not a scientific statement in the slightest. My opinion is rather a reaction to a traditional classical music education. Everyone is always looking to the past instead of the future. Singers want to sound like the Divas and Divos of yesterday. New styles of singing are considered "butchering" the music, and risks are seen as something to be avoided rather than embraced.

That being said, the production aspect of Opera is entering a new age. If anyone was lucky enough to catch the Met's last production of "The Magic Flute", you know what I'm talking about.

This year at the Met, director Robert Lepage is taking stage production to the next level. His goal is to incorporate visual elements that react directly to the music as it is being performed. Projectors will display images and visual textures whose parameters are controlled by the volume, inflection, and rhythm of the singers. Because the visuals will directly reflect the sounds of that actual moment, no two productions will look exactly alike. The new technology was unveiled in the production of Berlioz's "Faust" which opened this past Friday.

So you may ask, what the heck is this stuff going to look like? Let's take the opening aria for instance. As Faust sings his opening song, birds are projected in the background. As the singer increases in volume, the birds fly faster. As he changes pitch, the birds change direction. Other optical illusions include false grass that moves as Actors feet drag across it and digital reflections of real objects on stage that change dynamically with the music. The picture at the top of the post exemplifies this "digital reflection" technology. As you can see, it looks as if there is water below the boat that mirrors the image above it. This watery reflection is nothing more than a projection.

Although Lepage is the director who pushed the idea to the Met, the actual technician behind the visuals is the German-born Holger Förterer; a self-proclaimed software artist. Förterer hand wrote the software that interprets the aural and visual inputs from the stage and translates them into data the projectors can display. After a quick glance at his website, the guy seems to be doing some really interesting and innovative stuff in other artistic realms outside of opera. Apart from video installations, he also does digital photograph manipulation and some sound design as well. (Click here to check out his website)

Up next on the production duo's to-do list is Wagner's "Ring", which will also be hosted at the Met later in the year. Faust will provide a test-run for the new technology, as Lepage sees it entering the production of "The Ring" in a big way. The Ring will no doubt provide a lot of room for exploration. Not only is the music very visual, but the scenes themselves exist in a mythical world that will lend itself well to the new technology. When Wagner's Ring Cycle premiered in 1869, it was the largest, most elaborate staged production the world had ever seen. Wagner's financial backers were even forced to build a new theater to house the show. Hopefully we can expect something of this magnitude when the new tech-savvy production is unveiled later this year.

I am almost as excited by the forthcoming reaction to the production. There will no doubt be those purists who see the new production techniques as blasphemy. I can hear the complaints already. "Lepage defecates on a work of art!" or "The end of opera as we know it!" (I don't think that second one would be such a bad thing!) These people equate things like this to drawing over the smile of the Mona Lisa. I would argue that nothing could be further from the truth. My hope is that Lepage will manage to drown out the dying breed of Opera traditionalists with packed houses and a stunning new look for the finest opera stage in the world. Opera Traditionalists and Modernists can agree on one thing, something drastic needs to be done if this art form wants to survive.

My suggestions? Stop dressing up to see a show, don't be afraid to applaud if you feel so inclined, and never, under any circumstance, shy away from taking a risk. After all, if we did that, we would have no Marriage of Figaro, no Fidelio, and no Ring Cycle.

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