Virtually Onstage

UMD Artists, Researchers Open New Views of Opera
by Chris Carroll | Illustration by Jason Keisling

For decades, audiences have watched from their seats as a group of nuns are marched to the guillotine at the climax of Francis Poulenc’s 1956 opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites.”

Now, thanks to a collaboration between the Maryland Opera Studio and the Maryland Blended Reality Center, they can be on stage with the performers through virtual reality (VR) technology.

It can get almost uncomfortably intimate, as when a doomed young novice sings a hymn, seemingly staring into the eyes of the viewer only two feet away. The viewer is wearing a VR headset, but too immersed in the performance to even notice.

“You can look at the micro-expressions of the performers, you can see the gleam in their eye, and really establish empathy with them,” says Amitabh Varshney, a professor of computer science, dean of the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences and one of the project’s leaders.

Allowing viewers to teleport through 360-degree views of the stage and even the orchestra pit with VR can enhance the experience for opera newbies and seasoned viewers alike, says Craig Kier, director of the Maryland Opera Studio, who’s also leading the research.

“We see this not only as an access point for someone who’s not familiar with opera, to demystify it, but for someone who is familiar—to really put them in the driver’s seat right in the middle of it all,” Kier says. “The complexity of this entire art form invites a more immersive experience.”

But, Kier says, he and Varshney are ever-mindful of the need not to degrade the traditional opera experience. So before incorporating VR imaging in public performances, they need to find ways, for example, to hide cameras still visible onstage in the Poulenc opera filming—maybe in scenery, maybe someday in tiny flying drones unnoticeable to the audience.

Although grounded in art, the project is an offshoot of broader research in medical uses of virtual and augmented reality between the University of Maryland and the University of Maryland, Baltimore through the MPowering the State initiative that combines the strengths of both institutions. In this case, they’re exploring whether VR representations of artistic performances can lessen hospital patients’ need for drugs to control pain and anxiety.

“We feel like we are in the early stages of a new genre of visual communication,” says Varshney. “You can use it for experiencing art in a new way, or perhaps a patient who has to be isolated can use it to be with their loved ones virtually—there are so many possible uses for it.”


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