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Going “Virtually” To The Opera – VRFocus

In his latest Virtual Arena column, industry specialist Kevin Williams takes a walk beyond the normal immersive entertainment projects he reports on, and looks at the deployment of immersive technology into the arts, with the launch of the world’s first hyper-reality opera experience.  

Current,Rising. Image credit Figment Productions and Joanne Scotcher

Marking the beginning of the reopening of exhibitions, events and attractions in certain localities, this report covers the opening of a brand new exhibit that takes immersive technology into a new medium. What has been dubbed #Artainment – a collision of the arts and culture with the entertainment medium. But this is much more nuanced, representing immersive experiences developed to transcend more traditional gallery, theatre, and live event approaches to the arts.

The adoption of VR as a medium to immerse an audience into an artist realm is not a new application. And has seen many curators embrace the technology as it evolves. The National Theatre in London during 2016 debuted their production wonder.land, a modern Alice in Wonderland, with a VR experience developed in collaboration between Fifty Nine Productions and Play Nicely. Audiences transported into the magical portal of the lead character, viewed from sitting on toilets.

Game of Thrones

There have been many other artistic deployments of immersive technology into the museum, gallery and theatre scene (recently we reported on the VR attraction the Tutankhamun Exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery). But for the world of opera, they had only toyed with the VR medium, with such deployments as the 2017 premier of We Cannot Sleep, as an immersive viewing experience using Samsung GearVR’s, and special VR content to place the audience into the heart of the narrative.

We Cannot Sleep - Gear VR audience

The beginning of May saw a brand-new experiment in blending historic stagecraft, artistic excellence, and cutting-edge technology. Launched by The Royal Opera House, in London’s Covent Garden – this project sees a UK Research and Innovation funded development that brings together an all-female-led creative team, working with, award-winning Figment Productions and Royal Holloway, University of London. As part of the Royal Opera House’s innovation programme, Audience Labs – looking at new ways to engage the audience within the artistic experience.

Royal Opera House

Using the medium of Hyper Reality and based on the free-roaming platform developed by Figment Productions. A company with an extensive background in theme park attractions, (as we reported recently regarding Derren Brown’s Ghost Train VR experience). Working closely with the artistic leads, they have created the experience called Current, Rising.

A 15-minute experience inspired by the liberation of Ariel, at the end of Shakespeare’s Tempest. Groups of four guests at a time are taken through the multi-sensory opera, employing all the artifice of the free-roaming experience. But in this experiment, the audience is transported into a world exploring the possibilities of VR to expand the idea of what an opera can be, both in the process of creation and in the audience experience.

Current Rising
Current, Rising. Image credit Johan Persson

Guests don PC VR backpacks while wearing the latest HP Reverb headsets that include Ultraleap hand tracking. The combined platform allows the four guests to see their hands within the virtual world as well as ghostly representations of their fellow travellers through this realm. Starting in a neutral space, the guests enter the virtual environment and then navigate around the space, immersive by sight and sound, elements of the music and performance incorporated into the content.

Current Rising
Current Rising, ROH, 2020, Credit: Johan Persson

For many of those that will experience this, it will be their first time in VR, let alone, a Hyper-Reality presentation. The use of real-world effects like wind, rumble, movement, and tactile objects overwhelming the senses. Rather than a game experience, this is an ability to exist within a space, and comprehend the message of the performance. And proved a thought-provoking utilization of this technology.

The experience space is within the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre and starting from 21 May until 10 June, this incredibly specialized experiment has been developed to conform with the current restrictions, strictly adhering to social distancing guidelines. Guests who want to try this will have to book ahead to register for tickets via the theatres online box-office. A unique and compelling experience for those that are lucky enough to try it. This marks the first in a series of special reports that will commence, as we chart the reopening of many new immersive entertainment venues internationally, and we travel to see how the sector is adapting to the new conditions and the innovation being launched onto a very hungry entertainment market.


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