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Pageantry of Opera Technologically Enriched

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 09, 2014

Imagine not being told to turn off your cell phone at the opera. Think of audience interactions with special apps providing bursts of synchronized color on the screens of hand held devices. And imagine special balcony seating where technologically inclined opera buffs can live-tweet their experience.

Youngmoo Kim is an engineer and music scholar who believes technological innovation and artistic innovation are naturally linked and he is finding new ways to bring opera into the twenty-first century.

Kim has taken a sabbatical from his post as director of Drexel University's ExCITe Center to collaborate with Opera Philadelphia in exploring how emerging technology can be woven into all phases of operatic production. As he explained to Maiken Scott at Newsworks.org, "Music and technology have always been a part of my life. I just couldn't decide which one I loved more, so I've continued to do both." Kim double majored in engineering and music and also has a degree in vocal performance practice. The ExCITe team developed LiveNote, an award-winning app for hand held devices that guides opera goers through the musical, artistic and historical elements of what's happening in some Opera Philadelphia performances.

People habitually carry so much tech around with them, Kim observed, that it's "a little bit anachronistic" to keep asking that devices be turned off. When Opera Philadelphia presented a free outdoor performance of "Barber of Seville" projected onto massive screens at Independence Mall, the audience of 6,000 got a new technological treat. Kim and his team designed a web app that changed the color of every audience member's smart phone screen on cue and in unison.

Kim notes operas over the centuries advanced innovations such as pyrotechnics, trap doors, and imaginative lighting effects, so technology, opera and audience interaction are a natural fit. Before conventional darkened theaters existed, operatic audiences were part of the pageantry. Kim thinks traditional nineteenth century staging can make an opera seem remote today. We read "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" because some human conditions are timeless, he said, and he wants to find ways to recreate that timeless emotional connection between opera and modern audiences. He believes technology will enrich engagement.

At Opera Philadelphia's performance of "Ainadamar," the balcony had a social media section for bloggers and Twitter enthusiasts.

Earlier this year Opera Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute participated in a global experiment as a live performance of the robot opera "Death and the Powers" was simulcast from The Dallas Opera to more than ten locations in Europe and the U.S. The opera, by American composer and inventor Tod Machover of the MIT Media Lab, tells the story of Simon Powers, a dying billionaire who can't bear losing his family. He decides to upload his emotions, thoughts and personality into "the system," from whence those elements of him become absorbed into household objects that interact with loved ones after his death. Audiences at the simulcasts received secondary audio, video and multimedia through a specially developed app downloaded to their handheld devices. Audiences could experience the opera from the viewpoint of "the system," or a robot, and in addition had the opportunity to influence visual aspects of the performance. Read a review here, a discussion here and learn about the technology here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  innovation  music 

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