The Old Art and the New: Opera and VR
London's Royal Opera House and its experiments with virtual reality
We’ve seen over and over again in this course how digital technology is affecting companies across a variety of industries and how traditional companies can choose to adapt or die. Opera as an art form is a key part of the Western classical music tradition, known for its immersive performances as well as its sometimes stodgy and elitist tendencies. Leaders in the industry recognize the need to speak to increasingly digitally aware consumers in order to build the audience of the future. The Royal Opera House (ROH) in London’s Covent Garden is a digital leader in the space that has been experimenting with streaming partnerships and other new ways of engaging viewers, including virtual reality (VR).
ROH’s live stream and cinema broadcasts reach audiences across the globe, but its VR content has the greatest potential to bring the same spine-tingling sensation of being in the theater to people all over the world. Most of the VR content the ROH has produced has been behind-the-scenes footage of rehearsals and performances designed to make viewers feel immersed in sights and sounds as if they were performers themselves.
The Nutcracker in 360 degrees (The Royal Ballet)
One of ROH’s biggest VR projects to date was an immersive film / virtual reality experience created in partnership with Jaunt VR, a leader in cinematic VR production, in 2016. The film is shot as an opera chorus member’s point-of-view (POV) narrative as he or she journeys into the heart of the Royal Opera House, going backstage and behind-the-scenes, before heading to a rehearsal to run through the famous ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ from Verdi’s opera Nabucco.
The extended Jaunt experience is fully immersive, with 3D imagery as well as ambisonic sound – basically, when wearing a VR headset, you’ll experience the room’s natural variations of sound, depending on where you look. Capturing immersive sound at world class musical standards was challenging and required a sophisticated setup with an external sound design, resulting in a powerful four-channel ambisonic mix never attempted before with live opera.
The Royal Opera House – Join the Chorus
From a revenue perspective, the ROH is incentivized to bring people to the theater to watch its productions live. However, ROH’s audience is no longer limited to the 2,000+ people it can physically seat in its auditorium. VR experiences are not meant to replace live experiences, but rather to enable audiences around the world to experience world-class opera and ballet, hopefully inspiring the next generation of performers or empowering educators to explore the art forms within the learning environment – value creation for opera as an art form and society in general.
Currently the ROH is not charging for any of its short form VR content, allowing for wide viewership. I believe that leadership views investments in VR content and other digital initiatives as marketing costs to drive greater ticket sales and awareness of the art form.
VR brings a new perspective to immersive storytelling in general. With its head-tracking and 360-degree views, VR is all about a viewer’s ability to look anywhere—to choose his or her own adventure in a visual medium, no longer confined to a single point of view. Unlike traditional opera, TV, or film, where directors, producers, and other creatives drive the storytelling vision for the audience, VR empowers users to discover their own story. This proves an interesting new challenge for those doing creative work.
ROH and other performing arts companies could play with VR to create new ways of experiencing age-old productions, going further with the POV-type projects like the chorus in Verdi’s Nabucco. They might even be able to gamify the experience of going to a concert by asking viewers to act as orchestra members and play virtual instruments through a rhythm game for the enjoyment of a computer-generated audience.
I see great potential in the educational value of performing arts VR experiences. For example, simulations where dancers can be part of performances like Swan Lake could inspire the next generation of aspiring ballet dancers or could simply allow others to appreciate the talent involved in putting on such productions.
- Econsultancy. https://econsultancy.com/blog/67370-q-a-is-virtual-reality-the-future-of-the-royal-opera-house/
- Royal Opera House Labs. https://medium.com/royal-opera-house-labs/virtual-reality-opera-saviour-or-saboteur-bd837c496eca
- Royal Opera House. http://www.roh.org.uk/news/interactive-join-the-royal-opera-chorus-in-360-degrees
- Classical Music Reimagined. http://classicalmusicreimagined.com/2016/04/07/classical-music-virtual-reality-360-royal-opera-house/
Student comments on The Old Art and the New: Opera and VR
Interesting application of VR, Steph! I appreciated your point about VR currently being more of a marketing investment to drive interest and viewership for ROH. For how long can this remain a valid way of thinking about the VR content? I guess if VR doesn’t gain traction or displace actual viewership, then it’s fine to spend on VR as a marketing item. But if we see a world where no one goes to the Opera and instead people just experience it at home via VR, then ROH would need a new value capture model. The future is probably somewhere in between, just curious your thought on that.