Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini seems positively giddy as he talks up his upcoming production of La Traviata. And who can blame him? His company is building a massive floating stage on Sydney's harbour so that audiences will be able to watch performances against the world-famous backdrop of the Sydney Opera House.
The Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour program will launch next March with what promises to be a stunning production of Verdi's masterpiece. Its tragic elements will be offset by a giant chandelier hovering in the sky (held up by a crane), the opera's party guests ferried over to the action on glittery boats. There'll be fireworks, too, and a full orchestra. The whole thing is to be served up on a stage that resembles a silver platter.
"The scale of the production is enormous," Terracini told The Globe and Mail as he showed off the designs. "No one's done anything like this."
The artistic director was in his spacious Sydney office, a 15-minute ride from the iconic opera house: one of those buildings that, no matter how many times you've seen it in photographs, makes you gasp. That's precisely the reaction Terracini is playing on as he prepares to use the opera house in a new way: not as a venue, but as a setting. From the edge of Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens, where the audience will sit, the opera house is clearly visible, set against the dramatic harbour bridge.
"You don't get that view anywhere else in the world," Terracini says.
With its nearly $12-million budget, the production is an extreme example of how traditional theatrical (and operatic) offerings are being spruced up by spectacle - spectacle, purists be damned, fuelled by technology: from Broadway's technologically complex Spider-man: Turn off the Dark, finally opening to critics next month; to Robert Lepage's Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, concluding next spring; to the spectacle of a real-life steam locomotive in Toronto's production of The Railway Children; to much smaller, and smaller-budget, productions across North America.
At the same time as arts funding (and attention spans) are shrinking, access to (and comfort levels with) technology are growing. So it's a tempting tool for artists to play with, in an attempt to push themselves creatively - and draw in new audiences accustomed to the fast-paced screen entertainment offered at the movies and on TVs and laptops, not to mention cellphones.
But like any shiny new toy, technology can be overplayed. And misused. It's the story that has to take centre stage, says Andy Thompson, artistic and managing director of the Virtual Stage in Vancouver.
Thompson's recent collaboration with Langara College's Studio 58 - an adaptation of George Orwell's dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four - offered multiple screens, battle-scene footage and fear-inducing lighting design, created with "a stunning maze of endless cords and adapters" and the help of a Grade 12 digital-effects prodigy.
Taking his cue from Shakespeare (Hamlet's instructions to the players to hold "the mirror up to nature"), Thompson says that technology should be used thoughtfully, with measure and discretion. "The pitfalls can happen when the production forgets its own objectives and incorporates technological elements without a valid or thoughtful impulse behind them."
But there's no ignoring the digital age: "It's a new type of skill set that we need to learn and hone and refine as technology charges ahead of us," adds Thompson, "like it always will."
The learning process can be painful - and expensive, as the producers of Spider-man can attest. A revamped version of the $65-million (and no doubt growing) show officially opens June 14, but it's been a long road to the "even more thrilling audience experience" the production is promising, paved with performers' injuries, critical panning, and the removal of co-creator Julie Taymor as director. Based on reports from the original version, it would seem that even if the technological tricks had worked, there was still much to be done for the other aspects of the show.
Special effects - including a spectacle of a set - alone couldn't save Mirvish Production's $28-million adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Despite winning seven Dora Awards in Toronto in 2006, reviews were mostly bad on both sides of the pond. It closed after only six months in Toronto, and earlier than expected in London's West End, making it one of the biggest financial failures in theatre history.
More recently, and on a smaller scale, there was some question over whether that giant vintage locomotive enhanced the North American premiere of The Railway Children, or broke the spell created by the production.
But in New York, Canadian director Lepage has been wowing audiences with the first instalments of his high-tech Ring, and the complex, ingenious contraption of a stage he has created for the cycle. When his production of Siegfried premieres at the Met in October, it will feature computerized projections that will give the audience the experience of being in a three-dimensional forest - without the goofy glasses.
"Even without this 3-D imaging that's now being utilized in one of the operas of the Ring, it already was pushing the envelope in terms of what any opera house has ever attempted," the Met's general manager, Peter Gelb, said when the details were announced. "But [technology]is not consuming or taking over this Ring production."
Lepage has been using technology to create theatre magic for years. He was an early influence on the Siminovitch Prize-winning Kim Collier, now artistic associate at Canadian Stage in Toronto, and co-founder of Vancouver's Electric Company Theatre, which has developed a reputation for pushing the technological envelope. Among its productions: the theatre/film hybrid Tear the Curtain! (nominated for 11 Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards this week) and Studies in Motion - a visual stunner that employs digital light projectors in place of theatre lights and that required intricate programming work to create.
"It was really exciting, but on the other side of it, it was horrifically long to solve some of the [technical]challenges," says Electric Company co-founder Kevin Kerr, of creating Studies in Motion. "The tech took forever and it was so laborious … and of course you're always worried about the whole [computer]system crashing. So it really was kind of a hair-raising experience."
Now the company is developing a site-specific work that will employ smart-phone technology. It may be "the worst idea" in terms of audience engagement, Kerr acknowledges, but he's keen to explore how the ubiquitous technology can augment the live theatre experience.
"I guess that's the goal ultimately in any use of technology; it's to pull the audience forward in their seat and make them see the world or the stage in a new way that they hadn't seen it before, so that the story pops off the stage," he says.
But authenticity, he warns, is key. "If you want to take a piece and make it sexier and jazz it up a bit so you throw in some projections or you add some visual element to it, it can feel instantly pretty phony." Sometimes, he says, two people on a stage with a candle can be more powerful than all the technological gimmicks you can throw at something.
Still, there's no question that the promise of a dynamic visual experience - a 3-D forest, or fireworks with your Verdi - can lure an audience that might otherwise stick to the flat-screen at home.
Opera Australia's new floating blowout is clearly meant to appeal to the masses. "People will come who would never come to an opera," predicts Terracini, who hopes to draw 3,000 people a night (each paying about $90 to $365 a ticket) to the popular lookout known locally as Mrs. Macquarie's Point. The opera house across the water may be an architectural masterpiece and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it can only seat about half that many patrons.
"It's my belief that we need to play to as many people as possible," says Terracini. "This becomes an event, rather than an opera."
In this climate, performing-arts companies simply can't ignore the bottom line. In British Columbia, artists have been struggling with cutbacks to provincial arts funding. Thompson, who also collaborates with the Electric Company, says there has to be a strategy for the art of theatre to survive in a business context.
"Assuming there are finite entertainment dollars audiences can spend, and if you were to consider film and television [to be]theatre's rivals for a slice of the annual entertainment revenue pie, it's only wise that theatre adapts and changes with the times and learns from 'the enemy.' Theatre is bound to evolve. It is only natural."
Exposing new audiences to opera or theatre can't be a bad thing, but, like his colleagues, Kerr warns that any spectacle must serve the art, not the box office. It's a guiding principle for the Electrics.
"Certainly for us, right from the beginning, technology was never an attempt to make it seem glitzier than it was. It was always a way to say: 'What was the best way to tell this story? And how can we surprise our audiences in how they're engaging with the piece?'
"What I don't want to be in is a position where I'm feeling like, 'Oh, theatre is dying - how do we inject something into it to trick people [into thinking?]they're coming to see a movie or anything like that.' I think theatre is great because it's theatre, because it's live. It doesn't have to try to imitate anything else. And actually, its death is when it's trying to look like anything else. If it tries to look like television, if it tries to look like the movies, it fails miserably."
Vancouver company Boca Del Lupo's multimedia work aims to recreate the experience of the war photographer. Using transcripts from interviews with photojournalists (including Tim Hetherington, who was recently killed covering the conflict in Libya), a composite character speaks against a technologically intense backdrop. At Festival TransAmériques in Montreal May 28 to 30.
The Blue Dragon
Robert Lepage's dazzling set enchants in this East-meets-West tale making its Toronto debut next January at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. In Lepage's visionary hands, a bicycle ride takes the audience on a tour through another world.
Priscilla: Queen of the Desert
The campy transsexual cross-desert romp is now on Broadway after a Toronto run. The show's namesake is a flashy, life-size pink bus, covered in LED lights.
So scary that it comes with an advisory, this show premiered in London's West End. Its spooky, Olivier Award-nominated sound design and atmospheric lighting aim to scare the pants off you. At the Panasonic Theatre in Toronto until Sunday.
The Virtual Stage and Electric Company Theatre's take on Jean-Paul Sartre's existential classic augments the onstage drama with a live film, the cameras capturing the action in that hellish hotel room just off-stage. The technique heightens the audience's sense of the claustrophobic, noted a San Francisco Chronicle review of the show's recent run at American Conservatory Theater.