You Want A Tarantella On A Violin, I Want A Tarantula

Almost as soon as I published my post yesterday about building community around augmented reality, I started thinking about how that might work with live performance.

One of my first thoughts was that augmented reality could allow everyone in the audience to experience the event the way they wanted. When symphony orchestras project things behind them while they play, purists often complain that it detracts from the experience.

With augmented reality, some people could watch the concert with some sort of animated overlay while others watched without any enhancement at all.  There could be different “channels” of programming available at an event. One might have the animations, another might have program notes, another might have subtitles in your chosen language. There may be a choice of animations geared toward different age groups.

Credit where due, a recent repost of one of Holly Mulcahy’s blog entries with a picture of a tarantula crawling on her violin started getting my imagination going about what sort of things might possibly be overlaid on people during a concert.

The features could be educational as well as entertaining. During a concert, you might be prompted to “catch” notes cascading from a changing selection of instruments which would help people learn different orchestra instruments.  Granted, this might result in wild physical movements that others might find distracting so an organization would obviously need to be judicious about what they used when.

The technology might also open the possibility for people to create custom overlays that demeaned whatever was being looked at, reinforcing attitudes about art by placing statues, paintings and performers in lewd context.

That same possibility for custom augmentation also provides the opportunity to engage a larger community in live experience of art and culture. Whenever I start thinking about how to leverage technology to benefit the arts, inevitably I think about the cost of having someone create this content and getting staff to implement it.

But the cost and staffing needs don’t necessarily need to be burdensome. I am writing this post using the Firefox browser adorned by a custom skin someone made. If there was enough interest, there might be people around the world who would create program notes, animations, editable supertitles for operas, games, etc that could be licensed for use.

Part of the promotion for the event could include mention of program notes by a famed Japanese commentator, animations by a Brazilian artist, or maybe contributions by a local person of note.

The opportunity to tap into the expertise and passion of a worldwide pool of creators could be very beneficial by creating stronger bonds between members of an international community.

The local community and audiences might also be involved in providing content. You could have little QR code or other visual cue attached to an actor that a phone might pick up so that people could understand the character’s backstory during an opera. Audience members might submit questions or make comments that could either contribute to a clearer packet of information in the future or could be answered live by on-duty staff.

Obviously, too much of this type of interaction touches on the current debate about technology and live performance. Specifically, what is the value of live performance if your experience is mediated by technology? Clarifying information can be valuable to attendees, but a chatroom environment which occupies the majority of a person’s attention becomes problematic.

While I tend toward keeping distracting (both to oneself and seat mates) technologies out of a live experience, I will admit that I would really be excited to see how imaginative different people could be in creating new contexts for familiar works.  I also wonder if we wouldn’t see more people trying out unfamiliar experiences if they knew they could consult a guiding source of information. Indian dance and Kabuki performances might pop up in more unexpected places.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


4 thoughts on “You Want A Tarantella On A Violin, I Want A Tarantula”

  1. Maybe I am too old … I never thought I would say that … But I want nothing between me and the live experience. Yes, I have tried the oculus rift and had concert played for me by U2 and it was cool. But after 20 minutes under a closed mask I was sweating profusely.
    At the current state of the technology this is like a ride in an amusement park. A novelty that wears off quickly.
    I am open to new, less intrusive technology. Something to play with at home. But – with all that streaming going on – I still love my live concert – and rarely finish watching any concert or opera in my living room. There is no spark.

    • I would assume an augmented reality experience would be experienced through something like Google glass where you wouldn’t have the sweaty experience of a helmet.

      The technology could be great for people who never attended an event before because they could look at the actor playing Siegfried and find out more about the character, the actor and receive a supertitle translation.

      By the time they left a performance, they could feel much more confident about attending opera in the future than someone who didn’t have those resources available to them.

      But as you say, the more opportunity for distraction you have, the more difficult it is to remain completely connected with the experience.

  2. This is a great article, Joe. What a lot of people forget is that the program note was actually designed in the 19th century for the same purpose. They found that people didn’t get classical music just listening to it straight so they gave them booklets to tell them what to listen to.

    It makes sense to me that these technologies could be used to do the same thing – help people engage more closely and bring them into the experience.

    Content is the big key, though. High-tech wizardry that still sounds like a sixth grade music theory exam is somewhat uninspiring.

    • Thanks Matthew. In terms of content, I was actually envisioning that there would be an opportunity for self-selected as well as organization selected narrative.

      If you go to a museum, you might download the museum’s suggested guide or maybe you like the perspective a certain person brings to museum visits so you download theirs. Because your device can recognize the piece of art, it can pull up information as you approach the piece.

      Theoretically, it might recognize compositions and transitions between movements for a particular piece of classical music as well or you just download the guide for the music being played that night and advance things manually.

      Theatrical works might present a bit more of a challenge since a play could be designed in a context that doesn’t necessarily make sense in conjunction with the standard guide on that work that you might download. I have seen a version of The Merry Wives of Windsor with an all male cast which made the show a bit more about the cross-dressing than the relationships between the characters—or rather the dynamics of those relationships were much different than they might have been with people playing the traditional gender roles.

      As much as I might want to cringe at the idea of people watching a show through a heads up display projected on eye glass lenses, the opportunity for someone entirely unrelated to a production to create content that makes the experience interesting despite an organization’s boring program notes is pretty exciting to me.


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