A Hack At The Opera

No, no, no, this isn’t a story about someone with little talent and unoriginal ideas, quite the contrary.

Recently my Arts Hacker colleague, Ceci Dadisman, had linked to an article about an Opera Hack-a-thon that happened at the end of July.

If you are wondering how a “diverse group of opera industry composers, librettists, producers, directors and designers as well as experts in the fields of virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning, software design, creative coding and 3D printing” can solve problems facing opera, among the ideas they came up with where: (my emphasis)

There was also a discussion of using virtual reality to map the interiors of the theaters that opera companies use as well as the use of 3D printing technology to create low-cost costume, prop and scenic elements.


One idea involves creating an online database that producers and scenery designers could use to virtually create a three-dimensional scenic design inside a digitally mapped theater to determine how that scenery would fit in the space and what construction materials would work best for the venue, Bennett said.

Last season, San Diego Opera was forced to postpone a production of “Hansel and Gretel” because the company discovered after announcing the production that its rented scenery was too large to fit on the stage of the Balboa Theatre. Technology like this virtual database might eliminate problems like this in the future.

The article said the winning ideas from the Hack-a-thon wouldn’t be announced until August. I was curious to learn what emerged so I sought that article out as well. What caught my eye was that it sounded as if some solutions emerged outside the structured conversation of the event.

[Angel Mannion, project manager for Opera Hack, said]  “I think that we in the arts often live in our own heads, where we forget to ask for help, and that usually leads to re-creating the wheel in both artistic and administrative ways. We found that there were several problems that came up in side chatter where technology could provide an easy solution.”

One of the ideas coming out of the July event will receive funding to develop virtual reality equipment focused on delivering the sonic experience of an operatic performance:

The listener would be able to walk up to a virtual performer in the visual environment to listen more closely to their voice. Vibro-tactile haptic sensors strapped to the viewer’s body would also enable the viewer to “feel” the music.

Another project melded the digital mapping of a space for scenic design I mentioned earlier with project team collaboration software:

The database would incorporate the use of 360-degree “protogrammetry” to map the stages of opera theaters around the country, so that opera producers could work with scenic, lighting and other designers to see how a set might fit on their stage and appear from the vantage point of audience members. Eventually, the database would offer virtual reality “meetings” where multiple users could “beam into” the same virtual space together for planning meetings.

This proposal will be tested first by Houston Grand Opera, which is one of the lead architects of OPERAMAP, but will be made available to opera companies and designers nationwide.

The third project to receive funding, Open Show Bible, aims to cut production costs by making it easier to coordinate all the technical and performance cues for a show.

Using existing score-following software, the process would be tied into a live-animated open-show display that would be immediately accessible to multiple collaborators.

Creators say the new system would dramatically cut production costs by reducing the time it takes to “dry-tech” a rehearsal and it would improve communication between departments. In the long-term, the show bibles could be shared among multiple opera companies to present lower-priced, turnkey production with pre-programmed digital cues.

These latter two ideas especially would probably be welcome in other performing arts disciplines since dance and theater face many of the same design and production coordination challenges as opera.

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 (artshacker.com) 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. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the 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.


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2 thoughts on “A Hack At The Opera”

  1. Thanks, Joe, for staying on top of this.

    I recently had the opportunity to attend one of the final meetings of the first.stage project from the Digital Media Lab at the University of Bremen in collaboration with various partners. They are working with EU funding on exactly the previsualtion of stages to save time and budget and travel that had been mentioned by Cecial and yourself.

    More info can be found here: http://first-stage.eu/

    Project head is Prof. Rainer Malaka, he can be reached here: Phone: +49 421 218-64401, first.stage-info(at)tzi.de


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