Set construction workers won’t be cheering, but critics have mostly hailed Opera Australia’s Aida as a convincing success and a major technological advance in staging opera. Contentiously, this production by director Davide Livermore does away with physical sets and instead uses digital projections. The set designers are Giò Forma and video design is by D-Wok; both are Italian firms that do work in big events scenography and projection.
Expect more such credits in opera in the future. The technology is clever, able to replicate a 3D look on flat surfaces, and no efforts in carpentry can match it.
Aside from a small technical hitch on opening night, in which “a tiny, blinking square of blue light” persisted on one of the 10 huge sliding LED panels, OA’s Aida has seen the new technology used to stunning effect.
The AU Review described the production as “jaw-dropping, gasp-enticing”, BachTrack called it “very slick” in operation, and CutCommon felt it truck the right balance by not allowing the technology to dominate. Only Time Out was equivocal, calling it “a triumph of questionable taste” but “a triumph nonetheless”, and commenting that “Amongst the spectacle, Livermore tells the story with absolute clarity”.
On the back of this first success, Opera Australia will surely use digital sets again and other opera companies will look at taking up the same technology. The unprecedented colour and design it affords, and the potential for unlimited and instant scene changes will surely make that inevitable.
This is not the first time digital sets have been used in opera. The Met’s Siegfried in 2011 was one of the first productions to use 3D projections, and since then the Cleveland Orchestra’s Cunning Little Vixen (2014), ANU School of Music’s L’Orfeo (2014), and, at a technically simpler level, Deborah Cheetham’s Pecan Summer (Sydney Opera House, 2016), have employed digital projections.
The idea has been around for a lot longer in theatre and musicals, though. Trevor Nunn’s productions of ‘The Coast of Utopia’ in 2002 and ‘Woman in White’ in 2004 in the UK were breakthroughs in using cinematic-like video projections to cover the stage, although traditionalists frowned on their distracting effect and how they broke the spell of performances.
One of the hallmarks of opera – especially of grand opera – is big lavish sets, and to hand over this aspect of production to digital design and animation companies is bound to cause a backlash if this happens too frequently or excessively. On the other hand, young audiences, which Opera Australia has very much in mind in moving towards a high-tech future, are probably going to be the most accepting.
Time honoured timber-and-paint are likely to have an enduring, if diminishing, role in dressing a stage from now onwards. It might not be time to retire all the set construction hands just yet.
Aida continues at the Sydney Opera House until 31 August. See here for details.