Virtual Realities (Part Three)

But for the first two hundred years of its life spectacle, associated in particular with stage technology – referred to as ‘machines’ in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theatre – was assumed to be an essential component of opera; indeed, as essential as music. In his General History of Music of 1766–89 the English historian Dr Burney stated that opera consisted of three key elements – music, singing and machines – that were always vying for precedence, claiming that during the first century of opera ‘the distinct and characteristic charm of opera was not the Music but the machinery’. Purcell’s semi-opera The Fairy Queen (1692) was originally advertised as being presented with ‘Singing, Dancing and Machines interwoven, after the manner of an opera’; as late as 1791 Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte could be announced as ‘a comedy with machines’. […] Burney, on the other hand, was more ambivalent about operatic machines, which he described as ‘expensive and puerile toys’ (he was another Anglo-Saxon Protestant, after all).

The Cambridge Companion to Opera Studies, edited by Nicholas Till, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p.11

Traction occupies a complicated territory defined by four large ideas: co-creation, social inclusion, opera and technology. The first two have been the heart of my working life for decades, and opera, although far from there, is at least in the same territory of art. But technology is a field that I’ve had very little to do with, except, like everyone else, as its end-user. Happily, in a consortium with eight other partners, I knew that, insofar as I needed to understand the innovative ideas and technologies involved, there were experts in charge.

Even so, there were times when I wondered whether bringing experimental digital technology into a community art process really added value. (I might not be an Anglo-Saxon Protestant, but I spent too many of my formative years in that culture to be unmarked by it.) Over the months, and especially as the three operas have taken shape, I’ve learned better.

I have also come to appreciate opera’s intrinsic restlessness, to use an idea that I’ve previously applied to community art. Its combination of art forms (drama, music, singing, dance, design, visual art, literature etc.) has led some artists to see it as problematic, if not inferior—a crude and melodramatic form of theatre, for some, or lacking the abstract purity of orchestral music for others. Wagner, on the other hand, thought it higher than the other arts because it combined them in a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total or ideal form of art. Like other aspects of his legacy, that idea has not always been easy to live with.

Neither of these positions interests me much, but I am drawn to opera’s instability, its occupation of the borderlands between art forms and social spaces, because that generates energy and new possibilities. Opera’s power, implicitly acknowledged even by its critics, is contested, between composer and librettist, conductor and director, to say nothing of all the others who pull the blanket to their side of the bed. And among them are the designers and technologists who recognise that spectacle is also part of this form, as it was from the beginning. Spectacle tends to be more acceptable in the arts if it can be said to serve the work’s meaning—the ‘universal’ truth about the human condition that is still the claim of legitimacy made by the high arts in the Western tradition. But what if the spectacle is the meaning?

Out of the Ordinary is spectacular, an awe-inspiring combination of musical, visual and textual in a novel sensory experience. Its narrative, of the existential choice facing humanity in the face of threatening climate change, is central to the opera’s meaning, but so is the virtual reality world in which it unfolds. It cannot be understood except through its form and the machine that enables it.

Likewise, the use of video to connect people on two sides of a prison wall in a single performance is intrinsic to the sense performers and audiences made of O Tempo (Somos Nós). The third opera, La Gata Perduda, opens next month in the Liceu opera house in Barcelona, and I’m still not sure how technology will shape its meaning, but I know that it has played a part. The machines are part of this, as they have always been. It is a mistake to underestimate not just their potential in making art of today, for today, just as it is a mistake to think that the machines can make art for us. Meaning is human.

These are beautiful, beautiful machines. But, always a but. […]. Machine learning can only take you so far.

Ian McEwan, 2020 Machines Like Me, Random House(pp. 302-3.