Starry Opera Night
by Emily Trace
“It was the last show I did before the world shut down,” says international opera sensation Ambur Braid of Oper Frankfurt’s production of Salome, playing the princess who wins the head of John the Baptist by performing the infamous Dance of the Seven Veils for King Herod. But the global shutdown has presented artists like herself and creative talents in the live concert industry with an opportunity to reimagine how opera is presented and delivered to audiences beyond the constraints of shuttered traditional venues. In partnership with musician/producer Dan Kurtz and visual designer Isaac Rayment, she will resurrect the Covid-cancelled character for an operatic experience staged at the same venue where Lighthouse Immersive’s Van Gogh projection installation is currently dazzling Torontonians.
Ambur Braid by Jeremy Lewis
"It gets into your bones and it reverberates and there are so few things that can do that."
“What if this great voice got stuck in the middle of a concrete box and we surrounded it with light?” Kurtz extols the potential of a gallery space equipped with 53 HD projectors that can immerse a socially-distanced audience in a wall-to-floor-to-ceiling photonic set that leaves conventional opera staging in the pre-pandemic dust. A visual designer specializing in projection mapping with decades of experience directing music videos and live concert videos for everyone from Johnny Cash to Justin Timberlake, Rayment first tried his hand at this new technology in 2010 by creating these ‘maps’ for TED Talks. “It was like they were watching a magic show” he says of the audience, sharing that the producers asked him to dial it back because people were tuning out of the talks to watch his projections. Now one of the most in-demand technologies sweeping multiple event industries in the past few years, Rayment was hooked by this amazing new art form that could transform a space, able to “basically create live special effects in the real world”. He designed installations for shows in China, Ibiza, Germany, and Montreal before the opportunity to work with Ambur Braid arose.
Kurtz had collaborated with Braid for a memorable gig at the COC’s 2015 OperaNation as the bassist of Dragonette, where he provided synths and electric drums to back up her ‘rockstar’ performance of Mozart’s iconic ‘Queen of the Night’ aria. Citing it as his favourite event out of the 200+ shows he’d played that year, Kurtz reconnected with the celebrated diva in the early days of lockdown after having to cancel a year’s worth of shows. He describes Braid as “of a generation of people who can’t ignore the fact that there’s so much potential and dynamic power in opera, but if it’s constrained to the more traditional opera houses, it sort of precludes a huge audience,” listing barriers to attendance like cost, formality, and language. “Yet, it’s the kind of thing that rarely does anybody come away from watching somebody sing with that amount of power and precision without being wowed regardless of if you’re 65 or 12.”
“Salome is an incredible piece,” Braid shares, who will be accompanied by long-time collaborator pianist Topher Mokrzewski. “I mean, you get the genius that is Strauss and then the genius that is Oscar Wilde; there are some beautiful lines in it. It’s incredibly poetic and so disturbing which is very fun to play and fun to experience.” The story of a young girl who leverages her stepfather’s desire to see her perform the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, Salome demands that Herod award her the head of the man she adores who has refused to kiss or even look upon her. “The scene that we’re cutting to and doing in the show is essentially a love scene between her and a decapitated head,” Braid shares, expanding on the allure of such a disturbing dynamic. “The question is, does she know he’s dead? There’s all of these things you can do with it. She speaks to the head, ‘Why are your eyes shut? Why don’t you look at me? If you look at me you’ll fall in love with me’. So there is always a question of is she completely there, does she know what’s actually happening?” Audiences will have to interpret for themselves while occupying the same stage and space as Braid herself.
Dan Kurtz by Jeremy Lewis
Though Salome was chosen as the opera to develop in the unique gallery space, Braid created five programming options that she’s begun to perform with friends in yet another untraditional venue: her barn, with an audience spread out on picnic blankets. “It’s quite a tactile and quite a physical experience because the proximity is different,” she comments about her ‘Opera in the Wild’ performances—which share this tactility with the coming installation. Maintaining the physical connection between voice and audience was Braid’s main priority in developing the concept with Kurtz and Rayment, since opera singers train their entire lives to sing without technical amplification. “The way the sound hits the body is unlike anything else,” she explains. “And that’s why so many people are moved to tears: it’s the acoustics. It gets into your bones and it reverberates and there are so few things that can do that. A live event was what mattered to me in the most safe way we can do it, because we’re missing that. And more than ever people need that; they need the human contact, the release, and the safe space to feel that power.”
Thus far, singers and their audiences have only dealt with how COVID has limited their experience of opera, but the template that Kurtz and Rayment will be developing for preview this October will explore how safety measures can also liberate the form. “There’s a new degree of engagement and immersion for an audience,” says Kurtz. “We wouldn’t be having these thoughts and considerations and be dreaming up these kinds of shows if not for the fact that our entertainment choices have been so limited over the last six months.” He was impressed when they did a test run with Braid and the instrumentation to see “quite how unnecessary the visuals [of traditionally staged opera] can be in that setting, because if you put a voice like that and a pianist like that in a room and they just start playing… your mind is f***ing blown.” The installation space also offers innovative ways of sharing information with the audience; while opera audiences would normally have to scan what they can of a printed program before the lights go down, Rayment will create a program entirely of light wrapped around the projection space. “When guests first get there, they’re greeted by this immersive landscape explaining what the show is they’re about to see,” Rayment shares, saying this will include information about Strauss, Wilde, Braid, the synopsis and perhaps the tech too. “And then from there we’re going to transition into the actual performance, which will be a more focused experience at one end of the space.”
The space’s size creates certain challenges in mapping out focal points for the eye and ear. Since only fifty people can be permitted at one time in the cavernous former site of Toronto’s printing presses, Kurtz says that maintaining intimacy in a space the size of a parking lot will be a central challenge addressed while developing the preview. “You can create an enormous palette with no focal point in it and be wowed by the universe you could create in there, but if you’re trying to get people to focus on one singer, how are you gonna do that?” Braid also stresses that the grandness of the space need not overwhelm the intimacy of her performance. “The venue is cool for a multitude of reasons,” she comments. “I am the physical aspect in a lot of ways but it’s the sound that I think will be the most affecting because it’s like singing in a bathtub. Instead of singing full on I have to scale it down while still expressing everything… it’s going to be so intense for the people in that room.”
by Jeremy Lewis
Audiences used to conventional opera houses will need to recalibrate along with the creatives involved. Kurtz expands on how he and Rayment are being asked to add another dimension to their usual processes, and that this project “explodes everything we know in the sense of the things that we’ve done for a really long time and consider ourselves really good at.” But he adds significantly that the fundamentals of creating an emotional narrative arc remain universal, and that their prior experience gives them “an instinctual understanding of what people need to take away a complete experience.” As the visual designer, Rayment iterates the importance of having a strong core concept to work from, and that once the preview is built they can finalize a longer experience. “This is a reach on everybody’s part,” says Kurtz. “No one is an opera expert except for Ambur and yet … it’s just at our fingertips what the potential of what something like this is, whether we do it with opera at the end of 2020 and then move to modern dance in the beginning of 2021. Our hope is that what we’re doing is developing a template to produce an incredibly wide range of experiences for people there, and this would just be the beginning.”
In the same way that people who might not be fans of Van Gogh come to the gallery to see a room full of moving projections, Kurtz cites the technology itself as attractive “for people who don’t know anything about opera … it has potential to draw people into re-imagining and re-experiencing opera.” Ambur Braid says the element of this dazzling installation that she’s most looking forward to simply seeing what the response is from people hearing a human voice with their bodies in the space. There may be new restrictions for art-lovers and opera-goers to navigate in 2020, but projects like these reveal the restrictions that we already abided by in order to experience this highly physical form of music. The proscenium functioned as a brain-blood barrier between performer and audience for centuries until immersive creators began to subvert it, but in an era that leaves many longing for the immediacy of connection, transcending the fourth wall takes on a new, urgent meaning.