Opera (in Italian: work, the result of performance) has always been a genre of sleek, undefined features, changing from the Baroque to the 21st century, constantly adapting to the current relevance of time and space. “We have to take care of the opera’s legacy, but at the same time create what has not yet been yet created,” says composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. “If we don’t take the risk, it will dry out and lose its relevance.” Last year, the opera found itself on the threshold of another change – people were no longer allowed to perform and listen to opera in the traditional format. With the closure of opera houses, there was nothing left, but a risk.
It all started with a wave of old opera recordings being publicized and broadcast online. Later, ingenuity brought together in the soil of limitation, boredom, and modern technology redefined the opera genre, equating it to feature film, musical, animation, puppetry, theater, performance, virtual reality, or artificial intelligence. Today, the unexpectedly renewed genre of opera offers innovative experiences, inviting us to delve deeper into the change we are experiencing.
Opera as Artificial Intelligence: Laila
The 2020 work Laila by the composer Esa-Pekka Salonen for the Finnish National Opera broke all the traditional roles of opera. The multidisciplinary team, working with Ekho, Varjo and Zoan companies of modern technology, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, allows opera music and visuals to change and evolve interactively with the audience, this time becoming the opera’s main stars. Laila offers everyone a unique artistic experience, depending on how the person moves in the space, what they say, how they interact with other visitors. It is as if a separate musical universe, encompassing the opera space, challenges modern man to face the fears, hopes, and expectations of technology and the unknown.
The Finnish National Opera and Ballet Theater Laila has been created in collaboration with the virtual reality studio Zoan. Their innovative Opera Beyond project is designed to pre-visualize future opera productions before the stage is physically erected. In this way, it is possible to anticipate and solve the problems of virtual models, avoiding further technical problems in the construction of the opera, saving a lot of time, money and energy. It also facilitates direct cooperation between international teams, especially in quarantine conditions. Colleagues from different parts of the world can “walk” through an engaging and realistic 3D scene environment in their shared virtual creative vision. This allows them to boldly explore the limits of the opera art form and reach a new audience with their work.
Opera as Virtual Reality: Magic Buterfly
I even found four “first-in-the-world” virtual reality operas, created in Germany, Australia and the UK in 2020 (I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more). The Bayerische Staatsoper in Germany and the Melbourne Opera House in Australia use virtual reality to create a short-lived experience of a traditional opera performance in the hall and give their listeners a “live” meeting with the soloists of the recital opera.
The National Opera of Wales combines two beloved operas into virtual reality, WA Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Puccini’s Madam Butterfly becomes Magic Butterfly. This affordable and free project received 1,850 visitors in its first 16 days.
The Royal Opera House in London presents its new virtual reality experience, Current, Rising, which will debut in 2021. Linking traditional scenography to virtual reality sensory scenes, they described the project as an experience of “hyperreal” opera. It is a space where music, the visual world, and physical experience are directly connected. Current, Rising turns the creative process upside down and creates a new relationship between the creators and between the viewer and the work.
Opera as animation: La petite bohème
Animation in opera is nothing new, but lately, this tool has become more popular than ever by introducing new remote opera expression formats. Opera North is the National Opera Company of the United Kingdom, based in Leeds. In an effort to share the latest transport routes with innovative works, they introduced a live webcast of the animated opera La petite bohème last year. The twenty-minute staging of Puccini’s third action in La bohème, with decorations and characters created from black paper, offers a warm, subtle, at the same time humorous and emotional look of film artist Matthew Robins. to the heartbreaking classic finale of the opera. This animation was designed on the walls of buildings throughout the North of England and is available online.
Three opera-shots from the Irish project “20 shots of opera” presented later in the text were also animated. The short opera clips The Color Green and Verballing create a mesmerizing effect of repetitive musical phrases and talk about the differences between truth and lie. Mariela Pabón’s “Otro Cosa” animation charmingly depicts the sweet melancholy everyday life of Puerto Rican residents, illustrated by a paperback of Latin music hits.
Puppet animation has also become a much more common tool found on the pandemic stagnant opera scene. The puppets here depict not only the background decorations, but also the massive scenes, and the puppets also turn into side characters. The Opera in Focus troupe, staged by William B. Fosser, performs the most famous opera arias with some of the most refined puppets in the world.
The puppeteer Basel Twist, in addition to the puppets appearing on the stage in the French comic opera, has distinguished himself with another joint project of classical music and animation – in 2019, a visualization of H. Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique was created. It is music for the eyes, performed in the water pool with colorful scarves, feathers and straws. The creator himself called it a “performance in an abstract form”. The escapism, which has taken on an unevenly material form, weaves simple but magical images that carry the listener in sync with the Symphonie Fantastique waves.
Opera as a feature film: Soldier Songs
Without broadcasts on television and in cinema, before the pandemic, opera houses rarely invaded new visual fields. Last year, Philadelphia Opera offered the premiere of Soldier Songs on its online platform Opera Philadelphia Channel. It is an opera-film that combines elements of theater, rock music and animation. The screenplay for composer David T. Little’s 2006 monodrama is based on recorded conversations between World War II, Vietnam, and Afghanistan war veterans. The painful truths of war – its effects, traumas and the propaganda – were embodied by the creators in the figure of a lone soldier. He lives in a heavily influenced environment – an abandoned and isolated van in the middle of a battlefield in Chester County, Pennsylvania. A significant battle of the Revolutionary War took place in these lands in 1777, and today the story of the life of one soldier is told on the remains of soldiers who once fell and are now abandoned there. The baritone Johnathan McCullough, who embodied this role, was also the main initiator of this project and the director of the film. His performance gives the impression of an immediate empathy for the different stages of human life. As a child, a soldier plays violent computer games. He painfully remembers his eighteenth birthday when he was drafted into the army, and later war memories evoke unpredictable soldier recessions. The music is like a live portal intimately connecting the listener with the chaotic and sensitive inner world of the character. Meanwhile, the visuals of the film allow us to identify with the rituals of a soldier’s everyday life. In this opera, the idea of war is contrasted with the complex and painful reality of it, as evidenced by the conversations of veterans.
Opera as a Musical: You Know Nothing Of My Work
However, the opera does not necessarily have to be a military drama in comparison to the film. The British artist, named Guy Oliver, presents a pop-opera musical that mocks the moral dilemmas of the artist and his creations. “You Know Nothing Of My Work,” replied philosopher Marshall McLuhan to Woody Allen’s interlocutor in his famous film Annie Hall. Many people are closely associated with the work of artists such as W. Allen, R. Kelly, M. Jackson and organizations such as Miramax, which have been created by people engaged in criminal activities, recognized and punished as prisoners. The main question raised by the opera is whether the contribution of these figures to the cultural pantheon should be forgotten together with the people themselves. Does creation remain “good” even if it is created by a “bad” person? When the work is directly related to the artist’s personality, in each hint we see a piece of Guy Oliver’s autobiographical reasoning about his life and contemporary society. It is also obvious that the film about the exploitation of women and children is created and the truth is separated from the lie by a preaching man, seeking external recognition of his topical morality.
Guy Benjamin sings about everything, jumping from song to a song. The music or vocals in this opera will not captivate. The artist himself admits that he can’t sing. On the other hand, since opera is often criticized for its unrealistic vocal expression, its unobtrusive vocalization could be a realistic sound of everyday life. Although the opera You Know Nothing Of My Work is entertainment, the questions it raises provide in-depth insights into the moral dilemmas of modern society. Eventually, it makes you both think and smile at the same time.
Opera as a trance: L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S.
A new 2020 opera project by Nick Cave and Belgian composer Nicholas Lens, L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S, consists of twelve simple but exciting lyrics interwoven with the music of a “modest chamber dream opera”. Although described by the creators as a “quarantine opera”, this work is more reminiscent of a conceptual album of trance music. Inspired by the peaceful serenity of Japan’s Rinzai Zen temples, simple melodies were born, beginning with a Japanese gong, evoking silence and giving a sense of frozen time. N. Cave’s texts are a dozen spiritual coverings of life, death, love and suffering. These in L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S. opera mark the birth, flowering, death, and rebirth of man. The vocals of the soloist – the composer’s daughter Claros-Lane Lens – add even more tension and drama to everything.
Opera as a music video: 20 shots of Opera
Often, classical opera appears simply too long. The Irish National Opera and its ambitious artistic director Fergus Sheil has solved this problem by addressing an unattended audience. In 2020, he commissioned twenty composers for six-minute audiovisual works capturing the current experience of the pandemic. Each shot cleverly reflects a suddenly shattered reality and each hides a discovery – the shots reveal a variety of moods, states and thoughts is the most fascinating element of this mini-opera collection. Interestingly, all twenty differences are opera.
Opera as a performance: 7 Deaths of Maria Callas
“I don’t think the performance should be adapt to the virus,” the famous Marina Abramovich concluded when talking about her new piece on the stage of the Bayerische Staatsopera. “It’s a virus that has to adapt to the show.” The pioneer of the performance art, who came to deconstruct the opera genre, was greeted by a pandemic. Despite everything, Abramovich’s first opera, 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, premiered in Germany in the autumn of 2020.
The stage was shared throughout the performance by 7 soloists, each embodying different female stereotypes and different ways of death, singing the seven culminating arias of the deaths of famous operas. Marina Abramovich appears on the screen at the time, visualizing every death. She, like most opera listeners, noticed that in classical opera scenes, women always died of love, only in ever-different ways: Tosca jumped off a high castle terrace, Norma burned, Chio Chio San made a hara-kiri, Violeta died of tuberculosis, Desdemona was killed by Otello, Carmen – by Chose, and Lucia di Lammermoor died simply from a broken heart and a twisted mind.
Primadona Maria Callas survived all these seven deaths on stage, only each time on the stage of death she was killed by the love of her life Aristotle Onassis. Callas met her true death in 1977 after suffering a heart attack in the apartment in Paris. Her heart had survived A. Onassis’ infidelity and affair with Jacqueline Kennedy, whom he married as early as 1968. In the opera, Onassis was played by American actor Willem Dafoe, and Callas was portrayed by Marina Abramovich herself. The opera concludes the scene in a Paris apartment. “I wanted to show the strength and perseverance of women in the opera. Heartache doesn’t always end tragically. I believe in hope,” – Marina sums up her performance.
Pandemic Opera: Covid fan tutte
The confusing and complex experience of a pandemic does not fit into one genre: some have recently been living in tragedy, others in an absurd comedy or monodrama. All these experiences, worthy of the grand opera scene, became a working material in the hands of the creators of modern opera. While loneliness and meaninglessness are often here, some productions speak directly of the virus and the situation of 2020 and 2021.
The Finnish National Opera tells the story of WA Mozart’s cult opera Cosi fan Tutte, radically renewing it into experience of 2020 and renaming it Covid fan Tutte. The organizers of the jubilee Salzburg Festival near R. Strauss’s Electra per month also built a shortened version of the single-action Cosi. Not surprisingly, this opera was also one of the only opera works staged in America during the pandemic at the Pittsburgh Opera House. It is not difficult to find out what causes such a phenomenon of Cosi fan Tutte in 2020 – its staging is one of the smallest and minimalist in the history of opera. There are no choir, mass scenes and dancers here, we see six soloists on stage, and a small orchestra in the pit. Minimal decorations and stenographic solutions are enough to complete the plot. Everything is opened by the ingenious music of W. A. Mozart, the structure of which is flexible for shortening and various modifications. The authors defend themselves by emphasizing that in the time of the inventive Mozart, performers did not shy away from modifying operas, swapping Arias, skipping some episodes. With the blessing of Mozart himself, this opera was held by all.
On its Covid fan Tutte stage, the Finnish National Opera takes the listener to the here and now, the 2020 Finnish National Opera, where Wagner’s opera singers, who met at work on a regular day, were preparing for a new production of Valkyrie. Unexpectedly, it turns out that the performance is being canceled. One manager who has kept her job is trying to control the chaotic situation by preparing the disturbed musicians for the new opera Cosi fan Tutte. Of course, things are not going according to plan, when everyone on stage starts being haunted by a dancer – the personification of a coronavirus. The production and plot of the opera seem quite straightforward and predictable, somewhat reminiscent of the primitive humorous performances of the school plays. However, some details of today’s situation were captured aptly and squeezed out a smile. I believe that was the main goal of the opera.
The Pittsburgh Opera House in Pennsylvania, after the success of Cosi Fan Tutte at the Salzburg Festival, also decided to stage this opera. They succeeded, which is why a new product of theirs reaches listeners today – a 25-minute documentary called Covid fan tutte, which reveals all the behind-the-scenes opera opera in a pandemic. Opera director Chris Cox admitted that he wanted to immortalize the process in history, as well as to present the film as an example and instruction to other art organizations trying to create opera in such conditions.
Opera for non-singers: Dilgėlių laukas (Nettle Field)
A prominent Lithuanian artist – composer Lina Lapelytė – is planning another unheard mutation of opera virus in Sweden. Her new project, under the working title Nettle Field, is aimed at people who do not sing. Although the rules of academic music still dominate the world, Lapelytė enjoys people who are excluded from the system. In the selections, she is not looking for a boring standard in the singers – she is waiting for people to come as they are. Trying not to overshadow the musical differences, she tries to change the composing methods in such a way that the singing of a person without a musical hearing does not sound like a mistake. For an opera to unfold through content rather than rules, presentation, front, technique, or acting. “Lack of intonation threatens the overall sound like a nettle in the garden. But knowing that nettles are valuable, maybe it’s not worth to destroy it? ”- the composer shares her thoughts. – “After all, singing is not just a beautiful sound. It is also a process with healing properties”. Since the most interesting thing for human listeners is the person himself, with all its human errors and imperfections, L. Lapelytė rejects the importance of modern technologies and artificial intelligence for the creation of these times.
Opera as a tour: Glaistas (Putty)
Another Lithuanian producer, inseparable from contemporary opera, has a similar opinion. Ana Ablamonova is founder and director of Operomania. “We don’t want to waste our creative energy on various broadcasts that aren’t the core of our organization. These projects take a lot of time and energy: programming, filming, editing, uploading and advertising. The question remains open: when conventional products will take their place again in the future, will companies nurture digital catalogs produced during the pandemic?” – she asks.
This summer Operomanija, together with a creative team – director Mantas Jančiauskas, playwright Rimantas Ribačiauskas, composers Elena Šedyte and Andrius Šiuris – created an opera on the theme of the Holocaust, which during the creative process transformed into a chamber outdoor work – sound experience in the ghetto of Vilnius, capital of the Lithuania. Glaistas is a sound journey between reality and memory, following the territory of the former ghetto along to the Holocaust memories. Contrast becomes an important artistic tool here. The work is built on a shocking difference between the image of the “glazed” Vilnius of 2020 and the sound – the memories of four Holocaust survivors F. Sohat, J. Zak, S. Voloshin, B. Shubas, sounding in headphones. They talk about what is being covered today, trying to sink into the past in sight of which we want to close our eyes. But beneath a thick layer of plaster hides the memory of this city. This strange and influential vacuum of the present and past is the ground. Reality of the “opera” is organized by tour guides who could be called the only living stage performers. In this way, Glaistas becomes a symbolic farewell to the last of Holocaust survivors.
Today we live in a world where in most of our homes we can listen to all quality recorded music indefinitely for free. No exceptions since opera, with all its catalogs opened by the big theaters last year. Because the genre of opera depends on communion and the imagination of the audience, digital opera broadcasts cannot be compared to the experience of a live performance. On the other hand, the practical benefits of the fusion of live performance and virtual reality cannot be overlooked: lower cost of time, money and energy, smoother organization and collaboration. This allows opera art to reach a much wider audience than ever before.
Since the principle of opera to combine music with drama is extremely popular these days, we can rest assured that this genre will outlive us all. This year has proved that the living work of history in opera remains resilient and progressive in all conditions. Pandemic-constrained developers have opened their minds to experimentation with digital and remote creative tools. It is possible that if the potential of this genre is exploited, in 2021 the variety of opera forms will be even more abundant. Today, the opera house is a space anywhere in the world, containing talent, creativity and new technological possibilities. It is a place of excitement, development and cooperation.
However, the face of the future opera covered by the pandemic alternative is still difficult to see, with barely visible distinctiveness. It is too diverse to be recognized from afar as universal. What it will become will depend on how we choose today to think about and represent the future of opera.