Virtual realities (Part Two)

If you go to experience Out of the Ordinary/As an nGnách at the Dublin Fringe Festival today, you’ll be greeted by hosts who’ll show you to your own little island, one of several green spaces dotted around the room. On it, there’s a headset and a white crate, where you’ll put your shoes (and other treasures for safe keeping) so you can feel the soft sward through your socks. Then, after a short demonstration, you’ll put on a VR headset that will take you far away from the Dean Art Studios, Dublin or the world as you know it.

It is weird and wonderful to know, quite clearly, that you’re standing on a mat wearing a computer, and to feel equally clearly that you are somewhere else altogether, seeing and hearing a magical world.

The story is easy to follow. You are Nalva, travelling with your community on a creaky, rusting ship across heaving seas. You’ve abandoned your loved but desolate homeland, laid waste by Daol, an elemental spirit carelessly released by humans. But far from escaping her, you realise she’s always there, her intentions, for good or ill, unclear.

And where are you going? To a new Eden where you can live in peace and health? Or a coveted land that will be destroyed because no one has learned anything, least of all about themselves?

All around you, above and below, you see whole worlds though nothing looks as you’d expect. Colours—pastel, dark, intense—define gorgeous landscapes, trees and plants, the sea, snow and fire, homes and people hat move with you, in a world of many dimensions.

But it’s the music (which I’d thought might be overwhelmed by the visual fireworks) that tells the story, carrying you through on its beauty and emotion. It’s the the singing of Nalva and Daol, and the chorus of people whose lives are in the balance, that makes this ethereal world human and real. The people may be only voices here, but they are calling you to look at life clearly and make the right decision.

It’s opera, Jim, but not as we know it

I saw Out of the Ordinary/As an nGnách last month, as a work in progress, and at that time I wrote about the process that had brought it (almost) to completion. Because it is part of the Traction project, my focus has naturally been on the creative and technical innovations that drive that process—this is a research project whose learning needs to be recorded and shared. But unless we are making art, what would be the point of the research? Traction aims to stretch expectations in how and why opera can be co-created by professional and non-professional artists. Unless the result is art, there’s not much point.

And what is thrilling about Out of the Ordinary is that, with the headset on, I am immersed in a genuine artistic experience, but one like nothing I have experienced.

This is not what I expect of opera, and not only because what I am seeing makes no concessions to realism. However surreal the design concept, live opera depends on human beings on a stage. Not here: there are voices and digital characters, but nothing that says ‘opera singer’. I’ve experienced the piece several times, and each time was different, like listening carefully to a record, because there are layers of sound, imagery and above all meaning to discover, but much more active and engaging.

It’s not live, and yet it is because you experience it with others, with all the ritual of going to a show. The conversations afterwards, with the INO hosts and with the people who’ve just seen it with you, are an integral part of the experience.

It has been incredibly hard to create this. There was the pandemic, and the decision to co-create the piece with communities all over Ireland, and the enormous technical obstacles to overcome too. But perhaps the biggest challenge is simply that no one really knows what a VR opera is yet. It’s hard enough to create something when you know what you’re trying to make. Doing it when you’re inventing the form, language and standards even as you create art is like setting sail in the hope that you’ll discover land before you run out of fresh water.

I’m full of admiration for the team who have led this—the composer, Finola Merivale, director Jo Mangan, and writer Jody O’Neill, the non-professional artists and community members, the producers and the developers. There are too many to name here, but visit the production website to see who they are and see the range of capability and experience that have been drawn on to make this possible.

People who have played more with the emerging language of VR may be less surprised by some of what this offered, but most of us are novices here: this is technology that is still very far from mainstream, even with the power of Facebook behind it. To be honest, no one can even be sure that this will go anywhere: not everything does, as anyone who remembers the Minitel or quadraphonic sound will know. So go now, if you can get to Dublin, and see what you make of it. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Out of the Ordinary / As an nGnách is at the Dublin Fringe Festival from 12 to 25 September between 11:00 and 17:00 each day. Sessions last 30 minutes and tickets cost €5 – more details on the festival website.

Photographs on this page are by Lea Försterling and François Matarasso, while the digital images are from an early build of the world of Out of the Ordinary: it’s got even richer since then.

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