The intimacy of virtual reality

Pam de Sterke

Opera and VR might seem like an unlikely combination. Nevertheless De Nederlandse Reisopera organised two performances that focused on the application of new media in opera last December. I was curious as Het Geluid Maastricht directed both performances in which two populair technical gadgets played a central role: head-mounted virtual reality devices and a drone. I’m a fan of Het Geluid Maastricht and was convinced that they wouldn’t go for the hype-factor of these gadgets, which made me curious what the choice would offer me as a spectator.

My conclusion is that Het Geluid Maastricht succeeded in creating a form of intimacy in their performance Weltatem, not in spite of, but thanks to the VR glasses; whilst And that while commercial VR designer Shaw Walters wrote at the end of 2016, “[a VR experience] is everything we’re afraid of – isolation, disconnection, disorientations, darkness.” in his article ‘VR is dead’ (source: Shaw Walters, nov 11th 2016).

In Weltatem (breath of the world) VR devices are hidden behind a mask. Audience and performers stand together in a circle in a round room with a conductor in the middle. Half of the audience is wearing the masks and headphones and is thus almost (but not completely!) closed off from what is happening in the circle. To the rest of the audience they look like members of a tribe, because of the big crazy masks with long white hair on the sides. The masks are easily associated with sci-fi and simultaneously ancient tribes. The circle in which we all stand or sit reinforces the idea that we are all part of an ancient ritual. The picture below shows me with one of the masks on. 

The people wearing the masks see - in VR - their own voice visualized in real time: the virtual space is created by their own singing. This made the mask wearers sing with full dedication, despite of the awareness that others could see them. The mask provides a form of anonymity. When wearing a mask you cannot hear other singers, but you can feel them and therefore you are not completely closed of from the group. Everyone with a masks was accompanied by a guide. The guides were friendly, patient and attractively mysterious. My guide was standing so close to me I could feel her, which made me at ease. She would make sure I would not stumble or fall.

Only when taking the mask off I discovered that others are singing around me. It was a complete surprise that my friendly and mysterious companion was a singer, and so was everyone else’s! I was literally surrounded by sopranos!

The rest of the audience was sitting in the center of the circle and could see the singers and mask wearers. The material in the masks visually enlarges the mouths of their wearers. Big mouths make wordless sounds that support the voices of the (semi-) professional singers / guides who sing a piece from Wagner's Parsifal

A young boy performs a soliloquy in which he makes the connection between the first sounds made by our ancestors and the opera: it is by developing our voice that we have learned to communicate as people, from singing in an ancient ritual all the way to opera, which requires highly specialized training of voices and ears. The roles of the audience members are switched. That is the first part of the show.

The mask wearers are in their own world: a universe shaped by sound. This experience adds to the meaning of the performance: the emergence of sound, the first sounds, arising of the voice. The sounds made by the mask wearers, in turn, support the voices of the singers, together they form one choir for the other group of spectators. For mask wearers the experience is not isolating, disorienting or disconnected from the rest of the performance, because they stay connected with the physical space through contact with the singer. To the other half of the audience the mask wearers and their tribal sounds symbolize the primal form of communication in the circle. They are not separated from the singers, but an integral part of the choir in the circle.

In short, the visual / auditory VR experience, the experience of wearing the mask and looking at the mask wearers, are all three an integral part of the meaning of the first part of the show. These three layers of experience added by the use of the VR (devices) literally provide multiple perspectives in the same circle. The metaphorical significance of the multiple perspectives speaks for itself. It provides an intimacy between singers and audience that reinforces the idea of a meeting of the choir in a circle. The monologue of the boy provides language, a thread that you want to follow, which forms the link to the rest of the performance. We feel connected in the circle, which can break open by way of the monologue for the second part of the performance.

The experience of the audience members immersed in virtual reality (in this case the mask wearers) does not begin and end with the mounting of the VR device and the earphones on their heads. Physical contact in physical reality, being watched as immersed audience, and watching immersed audience are three perspectives which Het Geluid not only takes into account, but are indispensable in deriving at ‘the' meaning of the performance. By realizing this the performance dismisses the argument of VR developer Shaw Walters. Makers of theater (or opera) understand (like no other artist) that the body in physical space, seeing and being seen are essential semantic layers in a work. I would therefore advocate that VR experiences should always be designed in cocreation with a theatermaker.

Note to reader:
I'm a fan of HetGeluid Maastricht because they succeed in co-operating with the people whose living or working environment they enter with their performances. Hospital staff, asylum seekers or a local amateur choir, there is a place for them in the performance without sacrificing artistic quality (e.g. the chosen repertoire). They seek to collaborate with various artistic and technical disciplines and co-create performances in which directing is tending towards facilitating a process. Find out more about their work here.

About the author

  • Pam works as project manager for Waag's Future Heritage Lab and Creative Learning Lab.