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Tapestry Opera 2019 production Augmented Opera.

Dahlia Katz/Dahlia Katz

On Canada’s West Coast, something revolutionary is ready for its big debut. OrpheusVR, the latest project out of Vancouver-based indie opera company re: Naissance Opera, is the first-of-its-kind opera created for virtual reality. It’s exactly what it sounds like: The audience member puts on a VR headset – namely, the Oculus Quest – and steps into an immersive world. The avatars sing arias, the user decides how the story unfolds, and the music morphs along with it. “Orpheus,” sings Eurydice in OrpheusVR’s trailer, “What have you done?”

Debi Wong, the singer and multidisciplinary artist who founded re:Naissance Opera in 2017, has been hinting at the fusion of opera and VR for at least a year. Her 2019 production for Toronto’s Tapestry Opera, Augmented Opera, was more traditional, with the audience sitting in physical seats, listening to the acoustic sounds of human voices. The story, though, pondered an afterlife in augmented reality, and the score (Benton Roark) featured a bold dose of electronic music. Wong is as much into brand new as she is into baroque opera, and she’s made a signature style out of her bent toward combining old and modern. But it’s her love of gaming – board games such as Descent, and a video game fanaticism that started at age 9 with The Legend of Zelda – that is the true catalyst for OrpheusVR.

“My original idea was to just gamify the experience,” says Wong of her new VR opera. That meant giving the audience the ability to interact with the story elements, as in a video game. They can decide the fates of the characters, influence the narrative and, because it’s an opera, change how the music sounds. The look of OrpheusVR (Conrad Sly, art director) certainly nods to Zelda, with its medieval-fantasy setting and androgynous characters. The score (Brian Topp, composer) is a breathtaking feat, an entire opera made up of musical if-then statements.

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The audience member takes on the role of the Prophet, who has the power to decide the fate of famed lovers Orpheus and Eurydice. “You have to choose to either maintain the power structures of the world, or allow the power structures of the world to be overturned,” Wong explains. “In the world, you can either choose to keep things flourishing or blooming, or you can wither the world around you. And this changes the orchestration.”

OrpheusVR began as an inquisitive project, an adventure in operatic development that might offer the art form a new platform and a new audience. When the Oculus Quest came out in May 2019, it meant that VR was on its way to becoming mainstream. Yet neither Wong nor her creative team could have predicted COVID-19, and the subsequent spike in demand for all things VR. Forecast to reach US$18.8 billion globally in 2020, the VR and AR (augmented reality) sectors have grown nearly 80 per cent just since 2019.

“One of the largest drivers of research in 2020 has been the global pandemic,” says Chris Redmann, media and entertainment engineering manager at Unity Technologies and general submissions chair for the SIGGRAPH 2021 technology conference. “With a significant portion of the population working remotely, companies are struggling to find ways to keep their work force connected in more meaningful ways, and spatial computing is a strong contender.”

And, of course, VR is fun. “Not surprisingly, the gaming and entertainment industry has been at the forefront of immersive technology,” Redmann says, “and the majority of consumer experiences have fallen into this category.” Video games, virtual concerts, even virtual Burning Man – it’s an enormous opening of possibilities for safe socialization, and opera is essentially along for the ride.

“Opera deserves a place” in VR, Wong says. “To enter that sector with an opera project means that we get to help define what VR storytelling looks like. We very much have a voice in this strange, virtual, emergent art form that’s coming out.” There’s a certain amount of pride that an opera lover in Canada can take in OrpheusVR, a pioneer work in what could well become a ubiquitous medium for the performing arts.

More pragmatically, VR can offer a lifeline for artists and producers.

“I can still employ artists, I’m still paying our people,” Wong says. “I haven’t had to shut down. It’s been the opposite, actually, we’ve ramped up production.” Along with her OrpheusVR creative team, her project calls for singers, writers, designers and a composer. If you ignore the motion-capture gear, it’s a fairly traditional approach. It even opens up extraordinary possibilities for the traditional canon; which honest opera fan among us would not want to experience Wagner’s Ring Cycle in VR?

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Yet most importantly, a VR performance platform offers a real shot at survival as curtains stay closed – or a new pandemic shutters theatres again in the future. “The whole sector doesn’t have to shut down if we keep working toward diversifying,” Wong says.

For now, in these early days, there are still hurdles to overcome. Historically, VR technology has suffered from a software bottleneck, where computing power and battery life keep it from going entirely mainstream. But such problems are shared across the VR industry as a whole, and the pandemic-fuelled uptick in research and development means that they likely won’t remain issues for long. In terms of opera, Wong estimates that even live VR performances could be possible in six to 12 months.

When OrpheusVR gets its first test audience this month at the first-ever OperaCon: Digital Pop-Up – a three-day online convention centred on opera innovation – it will mark the landing point of a project that began out of curiosity and ended in a world of great need.

And despite the shift in context, Wong’s mission has remained. “We’re trying to create new audiences, to bolster the independent opera scene that needs to seek out ways to be financially stable,” she says. “We understand that what we’re doing is not going to be for everyone. But that’s okay.”

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