Despite fears to the contrary, more and more of us are engaging with the most innovative art form and technical advances only serve to make the experience more magical

Wozzeck and The New Prince, reinterpreted for The Opera Forward Festival at the Dutch National Opera

More than any other creative spectacle, opera is based on illusion. A stage magician may make the audience smile or gasp in wonder at his sleight-of-hand, but with classical musical theater the singers are immersed into an entire imaginary world where gods can fly and earthly women turn into creatures of the night.

It is for this reason that, perhaps counter-intuitively, opera has always been the art form with the most innovative use of technology. Breakthroughs in engineering and science have formed the backbone of this performance art and now, recent technological advances are revolutionizing it once again.

Where opera houses once relied on steam-driven machinery to make characters soar above the stage and imaginative plumbing to produce onstage streams, those effects are now as likely to be achieved through the use of audio-visual technology: gods are created as 3D images, enabling them not only to fly, but also to grow 10 meters tall or disappear in a puff of smoke; rivers are generated by rippling floors or flows of LED lights sprinkled across the stage.

And why have a real sheep when an animatronic one is less likely to wander offstage at a crucial moment?

“Opera has always tried to astonish. Nowadays you can dazzle with lighting. With live video feeds, you can create a set that responds to singers’ heart rates. So the technology is a compelling spectacle in and of itself,” says Ilana Walder-Biesanz, an engineer who researched opera’s use of technology while at Cambridge University.

“And many modern composers want to address topics that feel rooted in the here and now. Some of that is about politics and some of that is about technology, which is such an important part of how we live now. So Two Boys [by Nico Muhly with libretto by Craig Lucas, performed by the English National Opera and Metropolitan Opera] had melodrama and murder, but based around an internet chat room.”

The first virtual reality ballet, Night Fall presented by the Dutch National Ballet

Like all the greatest art forms, opera comments on mankind’s place in the world. This has meant that what is portrayed is changing too. That most venerable opera house, La Scala in Milan, recently staged CO2, Giorgio Battistelli’s work about climate change based on former US Vice President Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

The production involved liberal of use of video and TV-style scene shifting to shake things up in ways La Scala’s 18th-century founders could never have imagined.

And at the upstart end of the market, the young and nimble London-based company Silent Opera takes the characters of the classical canon and places their struggle in a contemporary context.

It specializes in performances in intimate and intriguing non-traditional spaces, which it achieves by giving all audience members a pair of wireless headphones. If they wear them, they hear the music with full orchestra – if they take them off they hear just the singers and six accompanying instrumentalists.

Giovanni, Silent Opera’s October 2016 adaptation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, featured the dead being contacted via Facebook messaging – the old and new collided within the play-world itself.

According to the company’s founder, Daisy Evans, using technology this way “removes the acres of red velvet and orchestra found in a traditional opera house. It brings audiences closer into the drama of the piece.”

Blank Out Opera, performed during the Opera Forward Festival at the Dutch National Opera

Doing so also fights opera’s greatest danger – that its patrons tend to be over the age of 60 and young people show little interest. Silent Opera, which is supported by the English National Opera, is especially proud that 50 per cent of its patrons are under 30 and 60 per cent have never been to an opera before.

In fact, widening participation is probably the greatest aim of the classical music industry today and technology has become one of the most powerful weapons in the battle.

Simultaneous broadcasts to cinemas across the world have widened access and pulled in people who would have been unlikely to buy a ticket to the Met in New York, or the Royal Opera in London.

Intriguingly, critics feel this has also resulted in an improvement in the performers’ acting, as they are now seen in close-up, rather than from the back of a huge theater.

Innovative camera techniques have added to the spectacle. In September 2016, the Dutch National Opera and Ballet, a stone’s throw away from Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam, created Night Fall, a virtual reality ballet. A 360-degree camera was placed among the dancers, so that anyone could use a smartphone or VR goggles to watch the performance from inside it, turning to view in any direction.

Some would worry that technology is cold and could drain the beauty from a show. Not so, according to Night Fall’s choreographer, Peter Leung. “Of course there are things that could be better,” he says of the show, “but there really is magic and poetry, and that’s the most important thing.”

Striking costume work seen in The New Prince at the Dutch National Opera
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