Digital scenography has been framed as something of a magic bullet in opera, one that can resolve many of the long-standing issues facing the industry. Over the past century, opera has become increasingly reliant on canonical works from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, and digital scenography is seen as a way to revitalise and reinterpret these historical works. Concerns about ageing audiences and financial instability have similarly fuelled interest in digital scenography as a strategy for making opera more affordable and accessible. In 2016, for example, Australia’s National Opera Review recommended that Australia’s federally funded opera companies incorporate more digital technology into their productions. They argued that the shift would reduce the costs of building physical sets, while also innovating the artform and appealing to diverse audiences.
There is no question that digital projections—including video, animations, and other forms of digital media—have become commonplace on opera stages worldwide. Indeed, data suggest that the use of digital scenography at opera companies is increasing. At The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, 60% of new productions in the 2019/20 season credited a projection or video designer—more than in any of the previous fourteen seasons.
Yet, it remains unclear whether digital scenography can actually address the challenges of funding, ageing audiences, and canonical repertoire. Digital sets still need to be designed, built and stored, and in some cases, can be significantly more expensive than physical sets. There is minimal data that shows a correlation between the use of digital technology and younger audiences or increased box office sales. Even the potential for digital scenography as a way to revitalise traditional operatic repertoire is tenuous. While digital elements can certainly be used as a scenographic tool to reinterpret operatic works, the same is arguably true of any new production design.
The difficulty is that, while many opera companies are jumping on the so-called ‘digital’ bandwagon, there remains little understanding of the practical implications of using digital scenography in opera, including how the technology can be integrated with live performers on stage and the subsequent consequences to backstage processes.
Current trends in digital scenography on stage: the modes of synthesis
An analysis of 63 different ‘digitally-enhanced’ opera productions from 33 different opera companies shows the ways in which live performers are integrated with digital elements on stage vary greatly. However, there are certain commonalities in the kind of relationship that emerges between live performers and digital elements from the perspective of the audience. These encompass three major categories: non-synthesis, partial-synthesis, and full-synthesis.
Productions that do not incorporate any ‘causal interplay’—or the appearance of a reciprocal relationship between the live and the digital—can be classified as non-synthesis. In these scenographic designs, the relationship between the performers and any digital elements consists of coordinated visual layers, with no evidence of any interaction between the two.
An example is The Metropolitan Opera’s La Donna del Lago (2015), directed by Paul Curran. The production uses digital technology to create a scenic vista that morphs from dawn to dusk over the course of the performance but does not incorporate any instances of seeming interactivity between the performers and their virtual background.
A number of analysed productions featured at least one instance of causal interplay between the live and the digital (for example, a performer moves, and a digital element appears to respond) and can be classified as partial-synthesis. This interplay can be an illusion—established through a combination of pre-rendered imagery and pre-determined choreography—or it can be the reflection of functional interactivity that is occurring in real-time. In either case, the appearance of interactivity establishes a shared spatial realm, in which the live performers and digital elements function as co-performers from the perspective of the audience. In these productions, the digital elements are not necessarily central to the dramaturgical design. Instead, they generally function to highlight narrative moments, convey certain moods, or resolve staging challenges.
Consider the final scene of Glyndebourne Opera’s Vanessa (2018), directed by Keith Warner. At Vanessa’s request to ‘cover the mirrors,’ the live performer playing the butler appears to pull a digital curtain across the back of the stage. With his initial physical prompt of ‘unhooking’ the digital curtain and the imagery’s subsequent movement across the stage, the live and the digital temporarily become equal partners within the shared theatrical space.
The most extreme form of digital scenography in practice, full-synthesis, is characterised by the total integration of the live and the digital from the perspective of the audience. Komische Oper Berlin and 1927’s Die Zauberflöte (2012), directed by Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky, uses a combination of interactive digital environments and digitalised characters to achieve this effect. At key points in the production, for example, the live performer playing Sarastro appears to ride a digital elephant, Monostatos holds the digital leash for three digital dogs, and Tamino flees from a digital serpent using digitalised legs.
In full-synthesis productions, the live performer is inextricably linked to the digital elements within the scenographic design, with multiple modes of connection maintained between the live performing body and its digital counterparts.
Impacts on opera’s production conventions, on and off the stage
If we examine opera’s historical scenographic developments, we find that the current use of digital scenography in opera does not constitute a major disruption to on-stage production conventions. In fact, parallels to non-synthesis, partial-synthesis, and full-synthesis can be traced back to the avant-garde theories of Edward Gordon Craig and Enrico Prampolini, the kinetic stage of Josef Svoboda, and the holographic experiments of Günther Schneider-Siemssen. Even earlier scenographic innovations in opera, such as those championed by Adolphe Appia, Richard Wagner, and Ferdinando Galli-Bibiena, can be seen as anticipating pre-digital forms of these trends in practice. In this way, the current use of digital scenography in opera can be framed as merely the latest iteration in a long line of technology-driven scenic innovations.
Impact on creative hierarchies
But it is also important to consider the impact of digital scenography off-stage, particularly on creative hierarchies and production design processes. Interviews with 18 designers and directors were conducted in order to gain their first-hand perspectives on the use of digital scenography in a backstage context. Practitioners include video and projection designer S. Katy Tucker, video designer Finn Ross, filmmaker Luke Halls, animator Paul Barritt, 59 Productions company director Mark Grimmer, projection designer Wendall K. Harrington, projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy, projection designer Sven Ortel, animator Grégoire Pont, lighting designer Donald Holder, and production designer Victoria ‘Vita’ Tzykun, among others.
Both creative hierarchies and production design processes vary widely and are most often shaped by the preferences of the individual practitioners involved. Yet, in both cases, the use of digital scenography can function as a disruptive force. In particular, there is evidence of a correlation between the use of digital scenography and the organisational structure of the creative team. The greater the scope of causal interplay in a given production, the more likely the digital designer or design team will be in a position of increased creative authority, even potentially assuming directorial responsibilities. There is a similar correlation between the use of digital scenography and the production design process: the greater the scope of causal interplay used in a given production, the more likely the production design process will benefit from significant funding support and an extended design timeline.
Most importantly, there is evidence of a significant disconnect between the artistic potential for digital scenography on stage and the administrative expectations of presenting opera companies. This is most apparent in the final stages of the production design process, including staging rehearsals, load-in, and technical rehearsals. The company expectations and timeline for these stages of the production process continue to be informed by the premise of a traditional physical set, one that is designed and constructed prior to load-in. This is in conflict with the reality of digital scenography, in which designers are often unable to finalise their work until after it has been integrated with the physical sets, lights, costumes, and live performers in the theatrical venue. This lack of alignment between industry standards and scenographic practice not only limits opportunities for experimentation but places the artistic capacity of the creative team at odds with administrative procedures.
The long-term possibilities for digital scenography in opera remain fluid, particularly as technology continues to advance. Further innovations in motion capture, real-time interactivity, video game engines, extended realities, and holography will have far-reaching impacts on the relationship between live performers and digital elements on stage, as well as creative hierarchies and production design processes behind the scenes. For now, however, the use of digital scenography remains limited by outdated industry standards, in which company expectations actively disrupt the dramaturgical potential for digital scenography in practice. Here, the modes of synthesis could function as a way to re-evaluate and modify some of these longstanding practices, with the aim of paving the way for future innovations in the field.
About the author
Dr Caitlin Vincent is the author of the book Digital Scenography in Opera in the Twenty-First Century. She is on faculty at the University of Melbourne where she researches the future of work in the arts. Key areas of expertise include opera, digital performance, and cultural labour. An acclaimed librettist and former professional soprano, Vincent has been commissioned by Washington National Opera, the University of Connecticut, and the Schubert Club of Minnesota, among others.
Digital Scenography in Opera in the Twenty-First Century is the first definitive study of the use of digital scenography in Western opera production. The book begins by exploring digital scenography’s dramaturgical possibilities and establishes a critical framework for identifying and comparing the use of digital scenography across different digitally enhanced opera productions. The book then investigates the impacts and potential disruptions of digital scenography on opera’s longstanding production conventions, both on and off the stage. Drawing on interviews with major industry practitioners, including Paul Barritt, Mark Grimmer, Donald Holder, Elaine J. McCarthy, Luke Halls, Wendall K. Harrington, Finn Ross, S. Katy Tucker, and Victoria ‘Vita’ Tzykun, author Caitlin Vincent identifies key correlations between the use of digital scenography in practice and subsequent impacts on creative hierarchies, production design processes, and organisational management. The book features detailed case studies of digitally enhanced productions premiered by Dutch National Opera, Komische Oper Berlin, Opéra de Lyon, The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, San Francisco Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, The Metropolitan Opera, Victorian Opera, and Washington National Opera.