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Opera Meets the Internet

Germany’s biggest contemporary music festival starts in Munich on April 27, but only a portion of the performances will actually take place on the city’s stage. This year’s entries are in the realm of virtual reality.


Cold Genius is the protagonist of the first opera composed for the internet

When the eighth International Festival for New Music Theater in Munich opens this Saturday, a good portion of the contemporary music-loving public could just as easily stay at home and log onto their computers. This year there’s no need for audiences to travel to Munich to see the world premiere of avant-garde musical productions. All the big publicity performances are taking place on the internet in one form or another.

With this year’s motto "the opera as virtual reality", the biannual Munich Festival hopes to bring the otherwise traditional music genre into the 21st century. After 500 years of producing opera for a fixed stage, the festival organizers felt it was time for a new approach, one that takes into consideration the most recent developments in digital communication.

Renaissance for the web

On opening night, audiences will view a blending of realities when the Renaissance world of writer Christopher Marlowe comes to life on a virtual stage in the production "Marlowe: the Jew of Malta" composed by André Werner.

Taking his cue from the internet, Werner’s opera plays with different perceptions of time and space by deconstructing the original Marlowe story into non-linear fragments similar to pages in the world wide web. Cross-references and multiple flashbacks dominate the score, and what was once the beginning of the story becomes the end. Space is only a matter of audience perspective. Projected digitally onto the stage, background images shift and move about distorting all sense of setting. Costumes, too, are in constant flux, as their digital projections move from one character to another like paper doll clothing.

Piecing it together in the internet

Manfred Stahnke’s opera "Orpheus Crystal" is also divided up into pieces spread about throughout space, but this time the internet helps bring them together.

Musical improvisations from eight musicians in Amsterdam, New York and San Francisco, each recorded at different times and locations, will be streamed into the internet for the complete performance on May 3. Already back in September, interested audiences could log onto the opera’s website to listen to portions of the composition and keep track of any new developments as well as submit feedback. When "Orpheus Crystal" premieres in Munich, live audiences can peek into the virtual performance through internet "windows" built into the stage production. Thus, both virtual and real worlds meet in a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk.

Let the computer do the work

Gerhard A. Winkler takes the concept of virtual opera one step further with his work "Heptameron". Every performance of this new-age work represents a different musical variation. Produced with computer programs, score files, video and sound files, the opera takes full advantage of the near limitless possibilities of computers.

During each performance sensors pick up movements of singers on the stage and convey the information to a computer. The computer in turn processes the data and transcribes it into commands for the video projectors, which create virtual stage sets, and to musicians, who play the music appearing on their computer monitors. The music being produced differs each time depending on the distance between the figures on stage and their tempo. The computer functions like an orchestra, that follows the human cues and interprets them musically.


Combining the traditional music and story lines of opera with the communication structures of the internet is certainly avant-garde, but not necessarily a novelty. Last January, Eberhard Schöner’s "Virtopera" combined the two media in a spectacular performance carried out on four stages on four continents and the internet. The final performance was held in Cologne and broadcast by the Deutsche Welle over its internet site.

Unlike the Munich opera performances, however, Schöner composed his virtual opera exclusively for the internet, relying on the medium’s unique communication structures and it’s visual capabilities. Internet users from all over the world participated in the creation of the operatic plot, the text and the musical composition. Even the opera’s protagonist, Cold Genius, was a virtual internet figure created purely out of bits and bytes, and who’s actions and thoughts were determined by internet users.

Live vs. virtual?

So far the concept of virtual opera is still very much in the experimental stage. Works such as Schöner’s or those of this year’s Munich Festival participants have not really caught on among the traditional opera-listening public, and it will be quite some time before major opera houses are willing to break with their standard repertoire and feature computer-assisted productions. The technical pre-requisites for staging virtual operas are just too expensive for a municipal theater, and the majority of opera fans are not internet-savvy enough to log into the opera sites and view the virtual operas at home.

As for internet surfers, there aren’t too many enthusiastic opera buffs among their ranks. The number of users who logged onto the Virtopera page during the actual streaming of the performance last year were fewer than the number of visitors to a sold-out opera performance. Music might be a popular topic on the web, but opera still hasn’t shrugged off it’s dusty old image.

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