New Wagner production will boast three dimensional sets as well as characters.

It’s fair to say that opera fans can be an obsessive bunch, with Wagner opera fans frequently the nuttiest in the fruitcake shop. It’s the Wagnerites who seem prepared to travel the furthest to get their fixes; it’s the Wagnerites who argue longest and loudest after a performance about the relative merits of everything from the singers’ notes to the program notes; and oddly enough, it’s the Wagnerites who are most regularly confronted with a controversial director’s vision putting a spin on one of the revered master’s masterpieces.

Melbourne looks likely to be the prime haven for the Australian Wagner lover in the immediate years ahead (Lyndon Terracini has pretty much ruled it out in the cramped confines of the Sydney Opera House), and Victorian Opera are the latest to take up the gauntlet, with a radical new production of The Flying Dutchman about to open at St Kilda’s iconic Palais Theatre. But this is radical with a difference. Don’t expect the chorus to be dressed as giant lab rats or Senta to give birth in the final scene. The novelty of director Roger Hodgman’s production will be apparent mostly behind the singers in the form of 3D scenery – cutting edge technology courtesy of Deakin University’s Motion.Lab.

It’s all part of a three-year partnership that will see the arts and science come together over a range of new projects. “We want to produce the opera visually in a totally new way,” Professor Kim Vincs from Motion.Lab tells me over the phone. “So people wear 3D glasses and the cineography is projected in three dimensions.” For the boffins at Deakin it’s clearly not just about novelty. “There are two ideas behind it,” Vincs explains. “One is to bring cinematic, visual sensibilities and the power of this technology into a theatrical context – the entire sensory experience so to speak. The second is potentially to come up with new models for touring opera, where instead of having to lug around your huge truck full of heavy scenery we can get that down to a couple of screens, projectors and computers. Hopefully we can change the economics and enable opera to be presented far more widely throughout the regions, which of course is really important in Australia.”

American soprano Lori Phillips is singing Senta, the woman who willingly gives her life to redeem the Dutchman from his curse, and she couldn’t be happier to be working in Melbourne on a technically sophisticated, but essentially mainstream production. “I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was basically a traditional look,” she laughs. “The costumes are going to be traditional and the period, I believe, is about 1840. And yet we will have all this new 3D and technical stuff going on around us. I guess it’s not been done before, so I’m really curious to see what it’ll be like!”

Lori Phillips. Photo by Charlie Kinross

Phillips, one of opera’s current rising stars, stepped in to save the day after the German soprano Petra Lang withdrew last year blaming the vocal demands of the role. A noted Senta who has played it at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the role clearly holds no such fears for Phillips. “The first time I did it was 15 years ago,” she tells me. “It’s a special role for me. I met my husband singing it. He was the Dutchman and I was singing Senta for the first time with a company in Florida. The idea of true love really took on a personal dimension and we’ve been married 13 years now!” And there’s another link in this particular chain of destiny. “My first manager in New York City was very close to one of the most famous Sentas, Leonie Rysanek,” she explains. “He always said I would follow in her footsteps. And when they hear me sing and perform, other people say I’m very Rysanek-like – perhaps because of my voice and dramatic intensity. Anyway, right from the start I felt I was destined to sing more Sentas, and then of course it was my Metropolitan Opera debut.”

Victorian Opera’s new technology follows on from several years of work that Kim Vincs, a dancemaker as well as a videographer, has put in at Motion.Lab. “Recently we premiered a new work that I choreographed called The Crack Up, which was inspired by the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald. We used 3D cineography to create images like a man cracking – literally falling apart in the middle of the air. We also collaborated last year with Gary Stuart, artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre, on a work called Multiverse, which was based on string theory. It’s about things that can’t be seen, so 3D was a terrific way to make imaginary images that couldn’t really be there by any other means.”

Deakin Motion.Lab’s realisation of the ocean as seen from Daland’s ship

The offer from Victorian Opera couldn’t have come at a better time for Vincs. “When Richard Mills approached me, I was really excited,” she says. “We’ve been developing the techniques of how to present 3D imagery without hurting peoples eyes, which is quite a craft! It’s a bit like the difference between 2D filmmaking and 3D filmmaking. A lot of 2D filmmaking language, doesn’t work in quite the same way in 3D because you have depth as an element. So, for example, if you have a close-up shot with somebody’s head sticking out of the screen towards the audience, and then cut to a long shot, that can be really heavy on the eyes. A lot of those techniques need rethinking and we’ve already done quite a bit of that in our dance work.”

So how does that all work in the context of The Fying Dutchman? Like all Wagner operas, the scenography as prescribed by the composer is crucial, complex and demanding. “I see the imagery as almost another character,” says Vincs, “particularly the sea. The ocean is a very powerful symbol in the opera. The Dutchman only comes on shore once every certain number of years, as a result of this curse that’s on him, and the weather has to react – the sea suddenly becomes stormy. We’ve actually built an environment within a game engine and we’ve built in game control, so that when the sea suddenly needs to respond to some ghostly activity, we can make that happen. Then just as quickly, we can calm the ocean down.”

Lori Phillips in rehearsal with Bradley Daley and Roger Hodgman. Photo by Charlie Kinross

It all sounds fairly straightforward, then. A far cry from some of the more outré productions that Wagner singers are faced with as they travel the globe, like so many vocal Dutchmen themselves. “I suppose the most avant-garde version I’ve done was at Washington National Opera,” Lori Phillips says. “I was in a red overcoat/dress kind of thing, that got torn away at the end when I became this spirit that saves the Dutchman’s life. Also in the duet with the Dutchman, which Wagner specifically and very strictly said should be completely still, in the Washington production we were moving. As a matter of fact, I was serving him dinner!”

And what plans do Motion.Lab have for the Dutchman’s ship – a crucial presence in the opera, and one that according to Wagner has to come and go – effects more often achieved by using LX to facilitate a simple appearance and disappearance. “Our ship has these massive blood red sails,” says Kim Vincs. “It’s a looming, ominous presence throughout the opera, so we’ve built a ship in 3D. What 3D does is it allows you to extend the imagery back into the space and bring it forward from the screen. We can really play with the emotional power of that ship at different times; making it more prominent; making it more ominous; allowing it to recede into the background when there are more domestic scenes.”

Deakin Motion.Lab’s realisation of the approaching Dutchman

By now, Vincs’ enthusiasm is palpable and there’s something of the evangelist in her manner. “3D imagery does have an emotional charge that you just don’t get in 2D,” she tells me. “If something’s coming towards you, as well as knowing that, you also feel it on a physical level. It’s the same with distances and seascapes. It’s a bit like looking out over the ocean with that sense of vastness. You actually get that physically through the 3D imagery.”

If all that sounds exciting, the singers are taking it very much in their strides. “Unless there are specific marks that we need to hit in order to be near to a certain light or a certain projection, I don’t see how it can really affect us,” says Phillips, a note of calm in her voice. “Basically, we will be acting and singing in real time and the other stuff will be going on around us.” Job done then…

Victorian Opera’s The Flying Dutchman is at the St Kilda Palais from Feb 14-19.