Technology has played a role in opera from its inception: Baroque-era stagings dazzled with live water features and gods riding chariots across the sky. The Metropolitan Opera’s infamously expensive and inconsistent machine for their recent Ring cycle and the current popularity of projected animations as scenic backdrops are simply a continuation of this trend. Opera’s elevated place among the arts is due, in part, to its incorporation of many media: music, acting, dance, architecture, painting, woodworking, costume design and more. To include modern feats of engineering, computer animation and cinematography fits this model.
But technology is also changing opera more fundamentally by enabling new rehearsal and performance methods and by itself becoming a topic for new operas. In the former category, we have the advent of singers’ lessons and coaching via Skype, online-only concerts and even an attempt at an online opera. Also worth considering is the way modern transportation has allowed top singers to undertake more global engagements and the influence live streaming (online or in cinemas) is having on performances. Video streaming shapes costuming, sets, make-up, the importance of singers’ appearances and even whether top singers will accept a role.
When I consider new operas that wrestle with questions of technology, two come to mind. Tod Machover’s futuristic Death and the Powers, often dubbed the ‘robot opera’, was created by the M.I.T. Media Lab’s Opera of the Future group. It questions billionaire Simon Powers’ decision to achieve immortality by merging his consciousness with ‘the System’. He becomes a disembodied presence in his home (importantly, one who can ‘still sign cheques’ and has ‘billions of bucks’), but his family members must come to terms with his confusing presence and decide whether to merge with ‘the System’ as well. The technological demands of presenting the opera are high: it includes autonomous ‘operabot’ characters and a complicated sensor array through which aspects of Simon Powers’ offstage performance (such as movements and body temperature) control set elements.
In contrast to this ‘opera of the future’, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys deals with the recent past. Loosely based on an English murder case from 2003, it dramatises the stabbing of one teenage boy by another, precipitated by a complicated web of chatroom provocation and deceit. The reception of Two Boys points to the challenges of recent technology as a theme: some critics mentioned that the focus on chatrooms already felt passé by the opera’s 2011 premiere. It is harder for audiences to see the universality of stories in near-modern settings than of those in the distant past or future. (Is the letter scene in Eugene Onegin also passé because written letters are no longer the fashion? Is Death and the Powers inaccessible because it deals with technologies that don’t yet exist?) Regardless, the internet is hardly superannuated, and Two Boys pioneered the musical and visual representation of the internet on the operatic stage. Its ‘digital space’ appears in the form of towering white walls of text and projections and the choristers’ faces are lit by the glow of their ever-present laptops. Characters sing full sentences while chatspeak abbreviations appear behind them; choruses routinely intrude with short, layered phrases – bits common to internet chatrooms or even arbitrary pieces of data from the singers’ memories.
As both a tool and a topic, technology wields great influence on the arts, and opera is no exception. Operas that engage with technology- as an innovative performance method, a subject to explore, or both – have the potential to attract young, wired audiences. Operatic newcomers who attend the internet-fuelled drama of Two Boys or the futuristic dilemmas of Death and the Powers may find they like the experience of sung drama in general. Similarly, long-time subscribers who are familiar with the classic repertoire may find enjoyment in both new operas and technologically innovative stagings of old favourites.
*Ilana Walder Biesanz  is doing an MPhil in European Literature and Culture. She was involved in the first online opera and is on the panel of Opera21 Magazine’s ‘Technology and Opera’ discussion. Picture credit: Stuart Miles and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.