VR headsets are not the first accessory one associates with opera-lovers – gamers, yes, but opera fans? Well, virtual reality is coming to Melbourne Opera and the company’s Resident Conductor Greg Hocking is convinced that once audiences give it a go they will be hooked.

When Melbourne Opera presents Verdi’s Macbeth at Her Majesty’s Theatre next month, not only will it livestream the performance on 26 May through Melbourne Digital Concert Hall (MDCH), but it will also host a live VR stream at the same time.

The production will be directed by film and opera director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Breaker Morant and Ladies in Black). Beresford had never experienced VR until he was persuaded to don headsets and watch the Brindisi from La Traviata. The 3D, 360-degree virtual world in which the singers performed the famous Drinking Song astonished him.

Director Bruce Beresford with performers Eleanor Greenwood and Simon Meadows. Photograph © Robin Halls

“Bruce was just hilarious,” says Hocking with a laugh. “It was hard to describe to him what VR is like. I said to him, ‘wait until you’ve tried it’ and [when he saw the Brindisi via the headsets] he was so excited, he couldn’t believe it. Now he’s really got the vibe.”

Since the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the arts because of the closure of performance venues, arts organisations around the world, including opera companies, have started using livestreaming. But, says Hocking: “As far as we can tell [Macbeth] will be the first time there is a VR broadcast in the world of a live opera.”

The idea for Melbourne Opera to embrace virtual reality as a performance platform began when Hocking was invited to a concert by Australian tenor Samuel Sakker, who had played Pollione in Norma for Melbourne Opera in 2019.

“I went down to this studio next to the Melbourne Town Hall and he was all set up for VR. I had no idea about it either, and I got talking to the guy who’s in charge of the VR company, Ignition Immersive, Darren Vukasinovic,” Hocking tells Limelight.

As a result of that discussion, Ignition Immersive captured Melbourne Opera’s recent production of Das Rheingold on five super-high-definition cameras. Unfortunately there wasn’t time to organise a VR livestream for audiences but the results blew everyone at the opera company away. However, there was a regular livestream of Das Rheingold, which was seen by thousands around the world.

“So we will continue our livestreams with MDCH, which I’ve been involved with from the beginning at the Athenaeum, but now we are adding in this additional bell and whistle, so if you’ve got a headset you will be able to view it on VR,” says Hocking.

“The amazing thing about the VR is where you can put the cameras because they are very discreet. They just look like slightly larger tennis balls on a stick so you tuck them away in the set and no one sees them. We had them all over the set for Rheingold and no one saw them, so it’s nothing like the old days with OB vans (television broadcast trucks) when you used to simulcast opera from the Sydney Opera House and it was a three-day epic. [Here] you plug them in and away they go.”

Beresford’s production of Macbeth will be set in 11th-century Scotland, as originally intended. “None of the productions I’ve seen have done this: more often than not, it is updated to the 20th century, often WW2. I think that by setting it in a world of stark castles, thrilling sword fights and ghostly encounters on eerie parapets, we will heighten the impact of the story,” said Beresford.

“Assassins, murder, subterfuge, madness…and the music is just phenomenal. Macbeth is a brilliant opera.”

Baritone Simon Meadows, who recently played Alberich in Das Rheingold, will play Macbeth. Helena Dix, who recently recovered from a terrifying bout of the coronavirus, and has performed in Melbourne Opera productions of Norma, Roberto Devereux and Lohengrin, will play Lady Macbeth. Other cast members include Samuel Sakker, Adrian Tamburini, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, Robert Macfarlane, Eleanor Greenwood and Alex Pokryshevsky. Hocking and Raymond Lawrence will conduct.

The production will be captured using five cameras including one in the pit, and one on stage. Audiences using VR headsets will be able to view it from different positions. “If you’ve got the right headset you can swap around during the show and watch a bit from the front, then from the pit, then from the wings, then you can be on stage with Helena Dix,” says Hocking.

Convincing opera-lovers to give it a go will be the first challenge, but Hocking is convinced it will happen.

“I feel it will be really attractive to people, it’s just one of those things that will suddenly take off. I was just talking to a friend of mine who said it’s a bit like drones. Originally no one had a drone, now lots of people have one. And the prices are coming down on these headsets, so I think it is a really interesting additional medium and from the opera world point of view it’s something that might help us keep up with the very serious issues that are arising about keeping the artform going. Certainly in Australia it’s getting very difficult.”

“With Melbourne Digital Concert Hall we’ve got this great bunch of long-standing supporters now and the real strength of it is that a third of them are regional so it really gives access on a different platform. It’s not the same as being there obviously, but it’s not like watching a video, it is live, and that’s why the Digital Concert Hall has gone so well because you are there. That’s why the regional stuff is so strong, people are suddenly able to access concerts in real time,” says Hocking.

“My wife runs the National Aging Research Institute so I put Darren [Vukasinovic of Ignition Immersive] in touch with her. One of the things Darren has been very interested in, and which we’ve trialled as well, is putting programs onto headsets [for people in retirement homes] and the response has been amazing…. In aged care, music therapy has been discovered as something that can really help people, so it is taking that information but wildly expanding it with the VR broadcasting.”

Anastasia Fai Kogan, who is an experienced business leader with extensive digital and creative experience, joined the Melbourne Opera Board in July 2020, and said that the time of her appointment that she is “looking forward to taking on the challenge of helping to grow Melbourne Opera in the digital age”. She is married to Ruslan Kogan, the founder and CEO of Kogan.com, Australia’s online retail platform.

“We have longer term plans to get access to lower price headsets and all the rest of it. So it’s one step at a time because it’s a new world,” says Hocking.

“We know people are out there with headsets. The minute you have tried it on, if there is enough product to watch, you will definitely go and buy a headset because it’s just a fascinating experience. From now on, we certainly will be broadcasting everything we do on VR as well as a livestream.”

Macbeth plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne on 18, 20, 23 and 26 May. Melbourne Digital Concert will livestream the performance on 26 May. The performance on 26 May will also be livestreamed in 8K 3D. Tickets for the VR experience will be available soon.

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