World Opera Report - 2009

Opportunities and Challenges at the World Opera

Special CineGrid Report
-- by Nathan Brock

In May, I was fortunate to be part of a small audience that was treated to a concert of short opera excerpts that were part of this year’s World Opera Symposium held in Struer, Denmark. A group of aspiring singers in the Metropolitan Opera training program sang duets with professional singers under the baton of well-known conductor Niels Muus. The performance included three parties from Mozart Cosi Fan Tutte, Verdi’s La Traviata, and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

After taking pitch from the piano, the conductor launched into the first piece on the program, a duet from Porgy and Bess. With minimal effort, the singers sang the number, with one eye on the conductor and the other on their duet partner. What made this afternoon special? One of the singers was in New York City, and the other was in Denmark.

Niels Muus conducts a duet from Porgy and Bess
at the 2009 World Opera Symposium

Second Annual World Opera Symposium

This innovative web-connected concert was part of the second annual World Opera Symposium. This type of distributed performance, in which networks bring musicians from remote locations together for real-time concerts, has become increasingly common in recent years. However, most performances are of improvised and experimental music that can handle a great deal of rhythmic flexibility, due to the network delay. Traditional opera, and classical music in general, is much less forgiving; performers are accustomed to playing exactly together, with little margin for error. The difficulties built into such repertory are the reason the World Opera project exists.

Founded several years ago by University of Tromsø professor Niels Lund, the purpose of the World Opera is to use distributed performances of opera to push the limits of telepresence and telecommunications technology. You might be surprised to note that the grant that provided the seed money for this project was intended to foster advances in telemedicine, not performance arts. The idea behind the grant was that if musicians, who are highly attuned to latency and synchronization errors, find a telepresence environment acceptable for performance, then so should most users of that environment. The World Opera intends to continue experiments like this concert towards the ultimate goal of the production of a full opera, currently being composed, in 2012.

World Opera founder, University of Tromsø professor Niels Windfeld Lund

Research Projects Already Bearing Fruit

Several research programs affiliated with the World Opera, including those at Stanford, McGill University, the University of Tromsø, Simula Lab, and Bang und Olufsen, have already found solutions to some of the technological hurdles inherent in streaming synchronous audio-video performances. The ever-improving quality of network speeds means that it is now possible to send audio over long distances with generally acceptable latencies.

For instance, in the World Opera concert that I attended in May, the network added 65 ms latency to the audio signals. The singers, for the most part, seemed able to negotiate this delay. Much work has also been done in establishing video links between sites – although video latencies are considerably longer than audio latencies, researchers are constantly reducing this disparity.

Maetro Muus coordinates networked singers in Denmark and New York

Work has also been done to explore the relationships between spaces found in this kind of performance. By knitting together two distant locations, the performers, composers, and technicians are able to meld and manipulate the audiences’ relationship to their environments. Media technologists, psychoacousticians, and sound designers are all developing approaches to these interactive performance opportunities.

More Work to Be Done

However, as with most cutting-edge projects, much work remains to be done, and the World Opera Symposium provided a place to brainstorm about problems and solutions. Some of the exciting ideas from the World Opera Symposium include:

  • In order to help compensate for network lag times, there is the concept of predictive tracking of the conductor’s baton. This would allow performers to accurately tell when the next beat is going to arrive, and the information could be sent ahead of time to the remote locations, and creating an avatar conductor whose arms beat in exact synchronicity across the entire network.
  • Researchers in display wall technologies are developing strategies both for on-stage displays and for interactivity between the conductor and the remote locations. Stage designers are also intrigued by new staging possibilities.
  • Beyond the technological challenges, the composers, librettists, conductors, and performers must all learn to adapt in various ways to the challenges and possibilities of this new genre, the distributed opera.

Premiere of First Dedicated Work Scheduled for 2012

The World Opera definitely has a lot to do in order to achieve its goal of a 2012 performance of their first dedicated work – a World Opera production in three acts based on Ludvig Holberg’s satirical science fiction novel "Niels Klims subterranean journey" from 1741 with music by 3 composers from Denmark, Russia/Germany and China/Canada. Full scale premiere plans to be in May 2012 as the first transcontinental distributed opera. In May 2010, a pre-premiere is planned to take place in Struer, Tromsø, New York and Montreal. Managing such a large and varied research group is a major challenge, as is the production of a full-length opera in four to eight opera houses simultaneously.

Although the project has a general manager (Dr. Lund) and a music director (Maestro Muus), it has yet to bring on a director or stage designer. There has also been discussion of hiring a film director to assist with the video work and an architect to design the flow of space. A further potential problem is the lack of common vocabulary and point of view between the artistic and scientific collaborators on the project.

Dr. Niels Lund is working hard on the 2012 World Opera premeire

Despite all of this, though, the enthusiasm and abilities of the current participants is high – we can expect that future partners will be carefully chosen to complement the existing community and fill gaps in expertise.

The next major test for the World Opera is a staged scene from the new opera, scheduled for next year’s Symposium, to be held in Montreal. The three composers who have been commissioned to write this piece, in a nice symmetry of distributed composition of this distributed opera, are currently writing hard to meet this deadline. The researchers are developing the necessary technology for this performance, and the project’s administrators are organizing venues and performers.

Looking for Help from Organizations, Researchers, and Volunteers

The World Opera organization is always on the lookout for networks and networking professionals to assist in this project, which seems sure to both energize the public and produce significant intellectual property. Although many of the performance sites have already been identified, additional locations could be considered. The World Opera is actively looking for researchers interested in these and other related issues to assist in the technical development of its projects.

Although still in its early stages, the World Opera’s ambitions and spirit are infectious. Its vision of a new artistic world mediated by high-end networking is a goal we can, and should, help realize.

Nathan Brock is a composer and audio engineer. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher in networked audio at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology and an adjunct professor of Music at the University of San Diego.