5 High-Tech Operas That Radically Transform the Stage

The run of the Metropolitan Opera's Damnation of Faust, designed by Canadian powerhouse designer Robert Lepage and his Ex Machina troupe, just started. We promise to give you a run-down of the opera's blitz of techno-imagery on Monday. Meanwhile, here are five high-tech operas that, depending on your tilt, either jar or excite the senses.

The Magic Flute

South African artist and visual director William Kentridge wowed audiences with his experimental, cinematic staging of Mozart's The Magic Flute in Belgium in 2005 and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2007. Rendering the stage a landscape of animated projections and artwork timed to correspond to singers' movements and arias, he made the opera closer to a video work. Animations come from Kentridge's "erasures"--black-and-white drawings of silhouettes, birds, and apartheid-era South African subjects that are photographed, erased, redrawn, and then animated to give a grainy, flip book-style pace to the action on-stage. An aria, for example, is punctuated by line drawings worming across the cosmos. Kentridge also added a structure that resembles the interior of a camera on-stage--to parallel the crypt in the story. And, ever self-referential, he projects a film, a kind of visual overture, onto a blackboard sitting on an easel.

The Magic Flute

The Ring Cycle

Valkyries flash LED light sabers in the Los Angeles Opera's production of Die Walkure earlier this year, by German stage director Achim Freyer. It's the first of the four-opera, $32 million Ring cycle--in this version, a kinetic light show and technical feat of stage engineering. The L.A. Opera is currently running the third cycle of the Ring, with the protagonist Siegfried brandishing a blue tube sword that changes color, and an illuminated turntable for a stage. Every aspect, from the twirling stage with 700 feet of custom LEDs to the motorized 3D space (occupied by flying props and performers) 55 feet above the apron, is computer controlled on multiple consoles and dozens of monitors. Lighting designer Brian Gales is responsible for the combination of LEDs and video projections--via 18 robotic and conventional projectors-- that hit the front and back scrims, creating a kind of 3-D lighting environment and perspective shift for the famous and controversial epic. The costumes are over-the-top, nearly caricatures of the roles, with a strikingly gorgeous and fearsome Brünnhilde vaguely reminiscent of Tilda Swinton as the Snow Queen in The Chronicles of Narnia and Siegfried sporting furry pants and a blue clingy shirt.

siegfried

siegfried

Brain Opera

The MIT Media Lab professor and avant-garde composer Tod Machover became famous for his 1980s research into hyperinstruments, where sensors feed a musician's output to a computer and the instrument "responds" by transforming the sounds or creating new ones. His Brain Opera, performed at Lincoln Center in 1996, flirts with AI: He wrote software that filtered and recombined sounds, and brought in hackers, designers, and musicians to define a musical "brain." The Times called it a "musical arcade," with pods and cocoons that housed high-tech instruments people could explore--physically or through the Internet. For his next opera, Death and the Powers (pic below), the Media Lab is building a "robotic architecture" for a shape-shifting stage, a chorus of robots, and "sonic animatronics" (a musical chandelier whose string-like surfaces are vibrated via electromagnetics). Minority Report designer Alex McDowell did the design, and poet Robert Pinsky wrote the libretto--a play-within-a-play written by robots following a human directive to put on this performance periodically.

tod machover

Doctor Atomic

Penny Woolcock's direction for John Adams' Doctor Atomic at the Met in 2008 blends projections, outlandish imagery, and tech-noise, such as running motors and pop music, in this production about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the events leading up to the detonation of the first atomic bomb. Set designer Julian Crouch created a massive unit with cubbyholes on the set. Onto the 64 surfaces of those cubbies he projected--with Catalyst media servers whose software auto-positioned the images--furiously fast calculations based on mathematical equations used to make the actual bomb. To that he added Native American imagery and Gary Cooper in Beau Geste. Peter Sellars' motley libretto blended science, the historical record, and quotes from the Bhagavad Gita and Baudelaire, and Mark Grey's sound design included six-zone surround sound, with clocks ticking, baby screams, trucks in reverse, and transistors fading out.

Doctor Atomic

Doctor Atomic

The Rake's Progress

Robert Lepage turned the stage and setting of Stravinsky's upside down, porting the Hogarth's 18th century London to the 1950s American West. It's a Hollywood-styled staging, with sodium vapor and moving lights, filmed backdrops and inflatables, and server-driven video projections that shimmer, for example, across a faux swimming pool in the middle of the stage. In another scene, a man's moving silhouette is projected  onto an LCD screen on the facade of a dollhouse to make the man appear to walk inside. The characters are given a revamp too, with Faust's Mephistopheles now a movie mogul who directs Mother Goose, hiked up behind a camera on a crane. When a woman drives a car on-stage, or when characters attend a movie premiere, the backgrounds become films, shot to make them appear as if they're moving across stage. In one scene, a row of 100 aircraft landing lights shines down on the 45-foot-wide projection screen to create a virtual red curtain. A media server ran and blended all the various projections to create single images from multiple angles. While the opera didn't include the technical wizardry Lepage put into, say, Cirque de Soleil's KA, Rake's tech tricks--combined with conventional tricks like beds falling into trap doors and a balloon that inflates into an Airstream trailer--tie the work together.

The Rake's Progress

The Rake's Progress

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