The stars of Opera Colorado’s La Bohème dot the stage of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, moving decisively through their blocking, getting so close to me that I feel compelled to step out of their way. Several more are visible as they dash around in the wings, and in my peripheral vision, I can make out the silhouette of the conductor and, behind him, the expanse of the entire theater. This view isn’t afforded by the Ellie’s most expensive ticket, or by some hyper-exclusive backstage pass. It’s available to the public, via virtual reality, at the NXT STG Collaborative Gallery gallery in Experience La Bohème.
Organized jointly by Opera Colorado and the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Arts & Media, Experience La Bohème comprises a suite of virtual- and augmented-reality displays, enabled by equipment ranging in sophistication from household iPads to Oculus Rift headsets, which offer viewers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at Opera Colorado’s process of mounting Puccini’s La Bohème last November. Once buckled into their VR goggles, visitors to the gallery can watch portions of the performance from the stage, view immersive clips of the opera from the orchestra pit, or — as I did — dizzily stumble around the 360-degree videoscape, awed by the very possibility of looking at rows of opera-house seats and ceiling-bound theatrical lighting rigs rendered so realistically.
This spectacle is the product of a months-long process, undertaken by UCD students and professors beginning last spring, when Chancellor Dorothy Horrell initiated a relationship between the university and Opera Colorado. Architecture students were invited to redesign the space that is now the NXT STG Gallery, building the light-filled “white cube” that currently houses the exhibition. Three more classes then worked to produce Experience La Bohème, creating augmented-reality posters, 360-degree videos, and short documentaries that explore the backstage spaces and production processes typically hidden from the general public. Daniel Stroh, a junior at UCD, says that while he typically views AR and VR as “novelty experiences,” he was surprised by how accessible it was from the creator’s side when his typography class was tasked with creating the AR posters that line the gallery.
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But the learning that takes place in the NXT STG gallery isn’t limited to those on the UCD enrollment roster. Travis Vermilye and Michelle Carpenter — the professors behind the project — aim to bring a new dimension of openness and excitement to the opera, long considered among the most inaccessible of the performing arts. To Carpenter, this technology can powerfully engage a younger demographic to whom opera might not be intrinsically appealing: “So much now, kids are told not to use their phone, to put their phone away,” she observes. “This actually asks you to bring your phone out and engage with the experience so that you can actually interact and learn something from it.”
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Opera Colorado’s eagerness to bring in younger audiences underscored the project, says Carpenter. Such an ambition, hinging on the adoption of cutting-edge technology, can often backfire, reading as strained or out of touch. This is, thankfully, not the case with Experience La Bohème. Rather than simply filming a performance from start to finish, Carpenter and Vermilye opted to focus on creating videos and AR experiences that enrich the experience of watching La Bohème, not just replicate it. The exhibition’s 360-degree video clips were shot during final dress rehearsal, granting viewers virtual access to Opera Colorado’s inner workings. The clips are supported by a series of floor-to-ceiling posters that, when viewed through an iPad camera, reveal animations about characters, photos from the dressing room, and costumes come to life. Carpenter describes this experience as cinema verité for the Internet age; Vermilye suggests this exclusive backstage access gives rise to a sort of voyeuristic excitement. “It’s like you’re a fly on the wall: Nobody knows you’re there, but you’re in that space, watching something that other people don’t get to see.”
VR technology might also help alleviate some of the economic barriers that give opera its reputation for inaccessibility. Vermilye and Carpenter have already laid the groundwork for the exhibition to reach beyond the gallery, preparing a series of 360-degree videos online, where anyone will be able to watch them, albeit flattened onto their computer screen. A more authentic approximation of the immersive VR experience could be possible with a smartphone and cheap headset like Google Cardboard — and, as Carpenter hopes, eventually with a more available and affordable descendant of the Oculus Rift.
Carpenter and Vermilye agree that the potential of such technologies extends far beyond the performing-arts complex. For Carpenter, one of the most promising possibilities would capitalize on AR and VR’s capacity to promote empathy. One example that she offers: by overlaying images onto a user’s field of vision, these technologies could help people visualize the impacts of climate change. “I think that’s what we need to do, is make people go, ‘Oh, I see it. I didn’t see it before, but I see it now.’”
Experience La Bohème exhibition, through May 2018, NXT STG Collaborative Gallery, Denver Performing Arts Complex.