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Feb. 20, 2014 11:30 am

Opera Philadelphia hosts sci-fi simulcast with audience-app interaction

Opera Philadelphia hosted the first-ever live global simulcast of an opera this past Sunday at the Franklin Institute. The audience got to play a role, by using a second-screen app.

Opera Philadelphia hosted the first-ever live global simulcast of an opera this past Sunday at the Franklin Institute. The audience got to play a role, by using a second-screen app.

The Dallas Opera performed Tod Machover’s science-fiction opera “Death and the Powers” live in Texas. Dallas streamed it via satellite to nine cities around the world, including Philadelphia.

“Death and the Powers” tells the story of an aging billionaire who tries to achieve immortality by uploading his life experience into a computer-generated “System” of virtual reality.

Before the experience started, Opera Philadelphia encouraged audience members to download a supplemental app developed by the MIT Media Lab. The app let users impact the lighting and other theatrical effects, in addition to give live feedback on the performance.

Machover is a professor of music and media at the Media Lab, a research facility dedicated to exploring the interaction of technology, media and digital design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He leads its Opera of the Future group.

“Death and the Powers” evokes a comparison to Richard Wagner’s concept of an “all-embracing art form,” or Gesamtkunstwerk in Wagner’s native German. Wagner, a legendary 19th century opera composer, conceived of this “artwork of the future” as a marriage of dance, music, poetry, architecture, sculpture and painting.

At times, the app’s visuals synchronized clearly with some of the visuals on the three large screens on stage. But while audience members were able to interact with the visuals on their devices, both the iOS and Android apps had some load-time issues this first attempt.

This wasn’t the first time Opera Philadelphia experimented with new ways of engagement. Recently, they hosted bloggers in “social media seats” who were invited to tweet during a performance.

Watch this video of the app experience by Chris Montgomery.

David Devan, the Opera Philadelphia president, was frank in his critique of the experimental multimedia experience.

“It was not always clear how what you were doing on the app was supposed to impact the performance,” Devan said in a post-performance question-and-answer session. “It was not as interactive as it was made out to be during the MIT Media Lab.”

The audience tended to agree with Devan during the question-and-answer session, in a way you rarely would be able to know. Audience members served as a focus group by completing a survey via their phones and having the results immediately appear on the theater screen. This direct feedback was perhaps the most obvious interactive aspect of the entire experience.

According to the survey, a majority of the audience did not feel like they impacted what happened during the opera, as the app felt very “one-way.”

Despite the simulcast’s issues, Devan reminded everyone that this was an experiment, and something to build upon. He wants to reflect on what Opera Philadelphia learned from the “Death and the Powers” simulcast before applying this technology to any of its future performances.

“We always wanted this sort of interactivity to be tried out outside of the opera house first,” Devan said. “But we have a long way to go for it to enhance the experience.”

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David Ziegler

David Ziegler is a contributor to Technical.ly Philly and a 2014 journalism graduate of Temple University. He has written for The Temple News in the past, and was the web editor of This is Our Community while interning in London. Find him on Linkedin here.

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