“De onwankelbare”, a report from an opera

On: April 12, 2008
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About Tijmen Schep
Tijmen Schep (1981) is a Dutch theorist on new media and digital culture, focussing on wireless media and public space. This theorizing is brought to life in the NetNiet.org foundation which promotes wireless media art by creating wireless festivals, events and installations.


Today I went and saw a new opera from the hands of Lars Boom (who also writes for Endemol), Marcel Sijm and Caroline Ansink, conducted by Jussi Jaatinen. Now, I don’t consider myself an opera person, but I was lured to this opera by the promise of extensive use of digital projections. As the picture below shows: I got what I was promised.

De onwankelbare

The opera was about a fued between composers Jan van Gilse and Willem Pijper at the beginning of the 19th century. In between ‘fightscenes’ the actors were drawing texts and musical notations on two overhead projectors at the back of the stage. The projections above those made by the overhead projectors were handled by 6 students sitting behind the white macs. Their only role was manually advancing their individual powerpoint slides (yes, powerpoint) by pressing the keyboard at the appropriate time. What resulted was a visual choreographing of rudimentary facts, tidbits and newspaper clippings about the ‘war’ of these two men.

So what do the use of these screens add to an opera? Is this technology for technology’s sake, experimenting because we have to? To a certain extent it always it’s bound to be, after all, opera has a well-defined dispositif with it’s own subculture. But I did feel that the images proven worthwhile in at least a very practical sense: They were subtitles, or maybe better referred to as super-titles, of what was being sung. Now, this might sound silly, but I really enjoyed that! I could easily switch between watching the show and picking out some snippets from the clouds of text above. Where using a libretto, the little book of songtexts you might get with an opera, means you have to take your eyes of the show if you want to follow the show, here that’s not the case. The result is that you can easily listen to what they’re saying, the odd inflections of opera become accessible and, for an opera-newbie like me, a little bit more enjoyable.

Besides this practical point I do think that visually more could have been made of it. I kept fantasizing about the joy that must come from having 6 good digital projectors. Talking to one of the designers I did learn that originally the concept was to show google searches, hyves-pages and other diverse information about the main characters as an extension of the idea that at the time it was difficult to get at the truth of the situation because the media had apparently really blown the feud out of proportion. The decision was made to tone it down visually because not everyone enjoyed the technological addition. My sister for example was really put off by even this toned-down version, saying that she felt ‘obliged’ to watch the ever-changing projections, and was thus overwhelmed.

Now I’m not going to finish by asking if this is the future of opera. Obviously by 2010 all opera will have screens everywhere.. No, if anything the varied response indicates a varying level of visual literacy and preference in the audience. The only thing to do is to play with it more, see what’s acceptable to most people, perhaps even build up a geek opera crowd. I’m sure that’s possible: if you look at Boom’s resume you’ll see he already made a musical targeted at football fans.

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