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In the last two years, Palindrome Inter.media Performance Group was involved in two opera productions. "Blinde Liebe, a true story of love and brutal murder" was produced in Nürnberg, Germany and San Francisco in 2005 and was co-produced by the composer Erling Wold. "Jenseits der Schatten" (Beyond the Shadows) was composed by Vladimir Tarnopolski and produced by the Bonn City Opera in September 2006. We were responsible for the choreography, the visuals and the overall directing of both productions. Both pieces incorporate virtual characters playing alongside living moving bodies.
Combining music, theater, dance and elaborate visual designs, opera is the quintessential multimedia art form. It has a tradition of experimentation and innovation and while it obviously has myriad styles and cultural traditions worldwide, one of the most beloved Western approaches is what Wagner termed the "Gesamtkunstwerk" -- the idea that the various artistic elements should work together to build a whole, a total effect, which is, as they say, greater than the sum of the parts. When done well, the audience is brought to an experience of emersion in a created world rather than one of individual artists giving expression within their individual art forms. Put another way, by appealing to the different senses simultaneously, and in a concerted way, it is possible to overwhelm the perception of the observer to the point where one is no longer aware of song, orchestra, dance, etc. separately, but rather as a singular integrated experience.
This does take some doing, and indeed is rarely realized. One reason is that highly trained performers have a habit of making themselves into quite bizarre creatures. They are impressive and expressive, yes, but are difficult to integrate. The place, for example, where the dancing stops, and the singing starts is usually all too clear, and once again we are left with an experience of separate art forms -- beautiful as they may be.
One approach which Palindrome uses is to de-emphasize the individual performer's specialized talents and rather work with their overall presence and abilities. We still rehearse and perfect their parts, but by asking singers to dance, and dancers to sing (or at least speak or shout), for example, performers' special identities become blurred. It would be sad to deny them their virtuoso eccentricities entirely, but perhaps ways can be found in which their specialized talents can be applied in ways which are not immediately recognizable as such: "Now the dancer is doing one of those ballet things, now the singer is doing one of those opera things." So we might rather hear, "what the fuck is going on?!" which we prefer.
Aiding and abetting our cause is new media. Video filming and projection, for example, can offer presence of performers to be modified and with great specificity to be integrated with other design elements. The dancer, or singer, as projected image, retains qualities of human presence and yet are reduced to parameters which the director can control (and thus integrate in a goal-oriented way). The quantity of data is a fraction of that which the live body on stage offers, but this is compensated for with other factors. For example, projecting a close-up of a performer's face is compelling if only for the fact that viewers are, in a virtual sense, brought much closer to the performer than a stage normally allows. This effect is extended considerably by digital processing. Palindrome uses a program called Kalypso to allow images to be delayed, slowed, illuminated (solarized), multiplied, sobelized, etc.
The problem with most of these new media forms (when put on stage) is that they are generally pretty dead (e.g. television). The wonderful impressions we gather from them, at the same time, have a way of numbing us. If generated realtime, that is, in conjunction with the performer's live presence, then some (though not all) of the deadening effect is be ameliorated. The life performer is thus, again, essential to the action. We use Eyecon to motion capture the performers' movements and use this to influence sounds and images.
The roles of the performers are thus two-fold: One, as human players, with roles and interactions in the traditional sense. But they were also perceivable as meta-characters, transcending and more comprehensive than their mere physical presence would allow. The environment thus reflected upon their qualities (movements) displaying them in over-dimensional relationships.
Opera has many challenges. It is true what they say: in most circles, it has become so encrusted -- so fixed on re-staging classics, that there is little room for innovation and discovery. Palindrome has been lucky in this regard, having had the chance to work with contemporary composers and with new media computer designs. For streaming videos and to obtain dvds and cds of our work, please go to our website http://www.palindrome.de.
All images courtesy of Robert Wechsler and Palindrome.