Terracini is staking much of the future and reputation of the national opera company on a digital revolution designed to immerse audiences and create an experience more akin to watching a movie than traditional opera.
The glittering reptiles on the Joan Sutherland Theatre stage are part of the wholly digital production design for OA’s upcoming Aida.
It’s the first step along a road Terracini says will revolutionise the way opera is staged and experienced.
He knows this new departure is not without risks but he insists “everything” OA does is high-risk.
“We can stick our head in the sand like most other opera companies and be part of the 19th century in terms of how we present what we’re doing to the public, or we can take a risk and say, ‘look at what’s happened to movies’,” he says.
“When you see Gandalf standing on top of a cliff and that amazing scenery – it’s all digital. There’s nothing real about it at all. And we need to embrace that.”
And while other companies have been using some digital technologies, OA claims to be the first company worldwide to stage an entirely digital production.
It’s moot how far the relative youth of OA and the Sydney Opera House – compared with the great opera theatres of Europe – provides more latitude for new approaches. But there will undoubtedly be plenty of industry eyes on this Australian Aida, assessing its impact and the response of audiences.
No other opera company in the world – no other theatre company in the world – is using technology to this extent.
Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia
“No other opera company in the world – no other theatre company in the world – is using technology to this extent,” Terracini says. “This is really changing the whole notion of what it means to build a show and also the impact you will have on the audience.”
The “set” for Aida consists of 10 LED panels, each between 2m or 2.5m wide and 7m tall. Each panel can be moved on tracks as well as rotate to display a conventional backdrop on the rear. Staging multiple operas each week will be possible once the need is removed to bump in and out physical sets. It will also, inevitably, be more cost-effective.
Another hi-tech innovation is the use of an “intelligent” lighting system called Zactrack. Each of the principals carries a small radio transceiver, which allows their movements on stage to be followed automatically by a spotlight. It should allow the soloists more freedom compared with the old days of a manually operated follow spot.
“You haven’t got to find the ‘x’ on the floor,” Terracini says. “This technology will find you wherever you go on the stage.”
Davide Livermore, artistic director of Turin’s Teatro Baretti, is the man charged with harnessing this technology to bring to life Verdi’s masterwork on the Sydney stage.
And while Livermore has built a reputation as one of the leading exponents of this high-tech theatre-making, he insists the narrative should always come first.
“We are creating a story,” he says. “For me it is a way to tell that story. For example, to show the interior thought or a secondary level to the action. Not for example to show a wall or fire – that’s not interesting.”
And in the particular case of Aida, Livermore wants to use the digital set to pursue his idea that Verdi always intended it to be a more intimate production than the usual huge spectacle.
“Normally, the singers in Aida hide behind costumes, elephants, horses and camels,” he says. “Normally, Aida needs a great space – an arena. This loses the sense of the incredible super-sophisticated score – [it’s more] like a chamber opera.
“The most important thing in this production for me is not the digital set but that the audience can be just 10 metres away. I’m sure this is what Giuseppe Verdi wanted. He wrote a perfect drama. Every emotion is told by the music.
“I think the shock of this production is that the singers don’t hide behind the voice or dress. We want to take every word and every part of the music and believe so deeply that we cry, we suffer … the most important thing for me is to serve my love of Giuseppe Verdi. I respect with all my soul the score. And want to serve it at every moment.”
With this abrupt development in on-stage technology comes the need to bring in new skills previously unknown in opera.
However, the flipside is that traditional roles such as in the scenery workshop will likely become less important, although Terracini insists it will be a gradual rather than abrupt change.
“Nothing’s going to happen completely overnight,” he says. “You will see a change over the next 10 years. Obviously we have wonderful productions that are physical productions that we’re not interested in getting rid of.
“We’ve invested in them and we want to present them to the public. But with things that we believe will work better digitally, then we will do them digitally.”
Italian-based D-Wok is one of those companies making an impact on opera production in a way that could scarcely have been imagined even a few years ago. They are an integral part of the design of Aida.
Chief executive and creative director Paolo “Gep” Cucco describes D-Wok as an “entertainment design company”.
“We work to create video design and performances for different kind of clients: theatres, brands, public companies, TV,” he says. “We love showing and telling a story using technology, human performances and video.
“We are passionate about our work and we want to do something different and new every time. And we are Italian: opera and beauty are in our DNA.”
The production for Aida involved shooting actors in front of a green screen, which will then appear in front of a range of backdrops, creating animated animals – panthers and gold snakes – and even capturing drone footage in the Andalusian desert.
“We can tell a story in a completely different way: we can describe the sentiments of the protagonists, or visualise a dream, create a cartoon for an overture, change a surface with a video mapping or go deeply underwater and after that flying in the sky … our approach is absolutely filmic,” Cucco says.
Amid all the excitement about the possibilities of the technology, however, is one great unknown. How will opera audiences react to this new treatment of the venerable art form about which they are so passionate?
Opera historian Erin Helyard jokes that traditionalists will be upset “no matter what you do”. He also argues that opera will always provide a refuge from the digital world, even if it in time adopts some of those technologies.
“Opera and theatre regardless of whether it uses digital technologies or not will always succeed in escaping the often demoralising and paralysing vicious circle of online life as it allows us to witness portrayals of humanity in real-time narratives, with real human beings on display,” he says. “I don’t think digital sets will ever erode this.
“This trend – which I welcome – is part of opera’s historical narrative to create bigger and better spectacles. Venetian set designers of the 17th century were the Pixar of their generation!”
Michael Halliwell, who teaches vocal and opera studies at the Sydney Conservatorium, shares Helyard’s enthusiasm, although he remains doubtful whether this is the answer to opera’s constant search for a younger audience.
“I’ve often thought that audiences tend to come to opera later in life, apart from in countries like Germany where opera is part of the culture from a very young age,” he says. “Opera demands concentration and involvement from the audience, something I think perhaps becomes more developed later in life.”
And, he argues, despite its conservative aura, opera has always embraced change and should continue to do so.
“I’m all for innovation in staging and making the experience for the audience as rewarding as possible,” he says. “There are always going to be excesses that miss the mark and will quickly disappear.
“I was involved in several rather compromised performances in my time in Germany, but if there is no experimentation, the art form becomes a museum.”
Aida will be staged at the Sydney Opera House from July 18 to August 31.