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"Change is hard but it is here…"

Lighting designer Sian James-Holland casts an eye over OA's hi-tech Aida and wonders what it means for the future of our theatre.

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Category: Opera
Show: Aida
Company: Opera Australia
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Out with the old? Innovate with the new

Date: 23 Jul 2018

Opera Australia has embarked on a creative journey into the future by heavily investing in Digital Performance Program for their upcoming seasons.

The recent renovation of the Joan Sutherland Theatre appears to have brought with it brand new LED lighting fixtures, an absolute transition from the previous tungsten rig and the complete replacement of subtractive with additive colour mixing.

Among the big ticket items are 10 Tekken LED (7m x 2.5m) video screens with 3.6mm resolution, the ability to track on and off stage, rotate at least 180 degrees and fly in and out.

OA has made it clear that these screens are here to be incorporated into its future seasons, well beyond its current production of Aida.

The company’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini is quoted (in The Australian, July 14) saying: “I would like the entire technical operation of what we do to be totally digital … That means lights, it means sets, it means everything. I know it’s possible, and I know we can do it.”

An optimistic view of Terracini’s statement is that digital technology will be adapted into the future of theatrical presentation in the Joan Sutherland.

A more pessimistic view might be that it is OA’s intention to shed production staff and save costs by making its set builders, prop makers and lighting turnover crews redundant.

Either way, it seems the heat is on for these screens and video system (referred to as Digital Platform in this article) to become a part of future OA performances.

A response to the work:

As I am a practicing artist, my intention is not to critique or criticise the work presented by the creative team but to simply discuss the challenges ahead for Opera Australia in perusing the ambition of the Digital Performances concept.

Firstly, it must be understood that performance, direction and design concept is not a chicken-or-egg situation. Strong design manifests itself from a thorough and intricate investigation of a text, idea or libretto. Only when a creative team has fully interrogated a text, explored a range of ideas, scratched out, started again and carefully considered all creative options, can a successful design contribute to a successful performance.

After watching the opening night of Aida, I’m left to wonder whether the creative team interrogated their ideas and concepts for the opera, then chose to move forward with screens as an integral part of the design, or if the reverse occurred?

Did Opera Australia outline to the creative team that the new Digital Platform concept was to be utilised and that Aida was to be created around it? It would explain a great deal about the final result.

To ancient Egypt, then, where the enslaved Ethiopian princess, Aida, finds her heart longs for Radames.

Radames is also secretly in love with Aida, but when the opportunity to ask the Pharaoh for her as his bride arises, Radames instead elects to ask the Pharaoh to free the Ethiopian slaves he captured in war (one of whom is Aida’s father) in order to relieve Aida’s despair for her people.

Quickly, the Pharaoh betroths his daughter Amneris to Radames. Yet despite the forthcoming marriage, Radames’ now forbidden love for Aida blossoms and Aida is forced to weigh her heart against the responsibility she faces as the leader of her people.

Directed and designed by Davide Livermore, artistic director of Turin’s Teatro Baretti, this production of Aida uses the Digital Platform to give the audience a sense of place and assist with the dramaturgy of the libretto.

Throughout, the video content changes in its approach and style to include suggestive iconography and associated imagery of ancient Egypt (slow-moving snakes, hieroglyphics, semi-nude men and women, a giant black panther) and recorded video footage, such as that of the victorious Radames astride his horse.

The images and animation are slick and professional, but I wonder, is this really the best way forward with this technology?

If we subscribe to the notion that theatre and opera is a form of manipulation, then the design of a production is a participant in that manipulation. Design constantly shifts and shapes the stage to subtly draw the audience eye to appropriate moments.

Video and digital content is surely no different.

One can understand the temptation to use video and animation to create location references for story clarity, especially in lengthy sections of orchestration such as the Triumphal March.

But a steady hand is required if the production design is to maintain a sense of consistency.

Livermore’s shifting between ideas of location, exposition, symbolism and sensual titillation makes this production confusing and, I would argue, does not realise the full artistic potential this new world of design technology can bring to our artistic experience.

In this production, the video content often overwhelmed the presence of the performers onstage. Verdi’s wildly dramatic and emotional music, combined with soulful performances, deliver gentle ebbs and flows of emotion and musical sensitivity.

If you are like me – with a secret love for recklessly over emotional operatic love stories – it is the human emotion that stirs your soul, and the human connection experienced with the performer that makes opera so special.

It is difficult for video, though not impossible, to support these nuances. The challenge is even greater when the scale of the imagery towers over the performance space and when the tempi of the animations differ to that of the orchestration.

Another limiting factor lies in the configuration of the screen and the way that they determine the usable space onstage. Performers in this production are unable to touch or even brush against the screens, which limits the physical interactions they can have with the objects in the space they share.

And how do you unify the stage when your 3D animations of people and scenery, which are sculpted in subtle touches of light and shade to make an image on a 2D surface appear 3D, when your sculpting of live performers is limited by the angles you can achieve around the screens, which results in 3D people and objects in the space appearing two-dimensional in comparison?

But please do not let this experience lead you to believe there is not great and exciting potential in this technology.

Projected scenery in place of built scenery is not a new concept. It has been tried and tested many times by companies around the world but I would suggest you simply can’t use the new to replicate the old.

There are many fine examples of the use of projection and video content in performance that have made their way onto Australian stages; STC’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui; Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Kings of War (Adelaide Festival 2018), and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time all find strong dramaturgical reasons to use video as a creative medium.

Digital performance is an exciting idea.

Recently we have seen a push in the European Union to make technologies that do not meet certain Energy Efficiency Targets illegal to use.

Australia, meanwhile, has maintained a push for energy efficiency targets led by the energy industry and politicians seeking simple solutions to our crippled power infrastructure and lack of investment in future power generation methods.

The global LED market was worth more than $26b in 2016 and is expected to grow to more the $56b by 2022.

Therefore many theatre makers and consumers who find solace and art in the older technology will ultimately be faced with the reality that those older lighting technologies will no longer be available to our industry.

Even if we continue to escape government legislation, manufacturing profit margins on LED technology will lead to the phasing-out of products on which we currently rely.

Until now, Australian theatres have avoided the need to completely upgrade to the new technology. But this reality is rapidly approaching us.

Change is hard but it is here…

Am I ready for it? No.

Are theatre-makers ready for it? No.

But we need to undertake the challenge together.

For centuries, we have been painting our scenic colours into light, creating colours of sets, and costumes to illuminate and transform certain ways under light but those techniques work under the old technology.

It is important for designers, craftsmen and companies to understand that this transition into energy efficient lighting is not simply swapping out old for new. Repertory companies such as Opera Australia may find this transition particularly challenging as many of their beautiful delicate productions, some decades old, have been crafted with the old technology in mind.

Looking toward the future, the fundamentals of the way we tell our stories will shift with the technology available to us.

Theatre has always found rhythms and subtleties in the technology at hand but with lighting metrics and technology possibilities evolving at such rapid rates now, we, as an industry, must embark on the long journey of discovering new techniques, new languages and new visions of how to best use and manipulate future scientific metrics into enchanting art that effects and affects every facet of a performance.

There are many positive attributes to Opera Australia’s bold investment into a very distinct and particular type of technology. Its new Digital Platform offers new ways of approaching work to ambitious theatre makers seeking innovation in theatrical language.

But it remains to be seen if the introduction will decide or influence the direction of the repertoire and find a comfortable home in less spectacular operas.

In the meantime, theatre makers and consumers have a lifetime of re-learning to do.

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