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A unique creative partnership brought a classic opera to the cutting edge

Completed in 1841, The Flying Dutchman is an opera set on storming seas, on a ghost ship doomed to sail the ocean until love can break its curse. Full of wind, water and fury, Wagner's classic has a visual ambition to match its stirring score – a world that is difficult to realise on the stage. But with cutting edge technology, Victorian Opera tamed the briny deep.

A flying dutchman

Victorian Opera 2015 'The Flying Dutchman' © Jeff Busby

Based at Deakin University's Burwood Campus, the Deakin Motion.Lab is a practice-led research facility exploring 'emerging relationships between moving bodies and digital systems.' A team of up to 20 artists, academics and technical staff at Motion.Lab works with game developers, film and animation companies, dancers, theatre companies and visual artists, using motion capture, robotics, and augmented reality to bring living movement to the digital world.

Victorian Opera began a relationship with Motion.Lab in 2013, when it commissioned the studio to create a 3D sequence representing (French Post-Impressionist artist) Georges Seurat's theory of colour for its production of Sunday in the Park with George. With 3D glasses, the audience watched as one of Seurat's paintings rippled and tore apart, revealing the cogs behind the machine. Though a brief moment in the production, it was a triumph; Victorian Opera and Motion.Lab decided to expand their ambitions.

People performing

Victorian Opera 2015 'The Flying Dutchman' © Jeff Busby

In 2014, with support from the Australian Research Council, Motion.Lab and Victorian Opera embarked on a three-year project to explore how 3D could be used to bring opera to life. The first of three proposed collaborations was The Flying Dutchman - notoriously difficult to stage and ripe for reimagining.

'We wanted to see if we could use the 3D technology in a well-known, mainstream work,' says Professor Kim Vincs of Motion.Lab. 'There have been a number of experimental operas where the technology is a driving force in the composition; where the works are written for the technology. But here, we were taking a long-established repertoire opera and seeing what we could do, aesthetically, if we brought the richness of a cinematic language to the scenography; if we could make a more contemporary statement with what is a very traditional work.'

People Performing

Victorian Opera 2015 'The Flying Dutchman'
© Jeff Busby

Presented at the Palais Theatre in February 2015, The Flying Dutchman 3D was the product of six-months' work at Motion.Lab, creating fully immersive 3D scenery that provided an illusion of depth unimaginable for an opera set just a few years ago. As a full-length mainstream opera with 3D sets throughout, it pushed the boundaries of the form - it is believed to be the first opera of its kind anywhere in the world.

'The real benefit of this project is exploring whether projected sets like this can change the economics of opera, and particularly the economics for touring. Opera in particular, but also ballet and major theatre, have typically quite extensive sets that are heavy and cost a lot to transfer around the countryside. Our idea was that if we could do away with even some of that requirement to transport heavy equipment, we could expand the tourability of mainstream opera. The first step was of course to make the aesthetic work, because if that doesn't work then there's no point touring it,' Vincs says.

According to Richard Mills, Artistic Director of Victorian Opera, the challenges of bringing The Flying Dutchman 3D to life were many. 'The performers had to trust that the rather bare staging effected in the rehearsal room would be contextualised later in the theatre, within the digital framework, and had to reference digital props that were not seen until work began in the theatre proper,' he explains. 'The cast made a huge act of faith that the scenery would work.'

Flying dutchman

Victorian Opera 2015 'The Flying Dutchman' © Deakin Motion.Lab

Professor Vincs faced her own technological battles. Rather than building discreet 3D sets, the entire world of The Flying Dutchman was built in a 3D game engine called Unity. As the opera takes place in a single Norwegian fjord, the whole 3D world of the opera was modelled in the game engine and the audience followed the action as it moved around that world. The ship interacted with the physics that were programmed into the game engine, bobbing around in the water and moving with the current.

'These uncanny storms had to whip up out of nowhere and a game engine was the perfect instrument to use for that, because we could just dial up the weather for a bit,' says Vincs. 'But it had a bit of a life of its own. In the theatre, we're used to a light that you can turn on and turn off, and tell exactly where to be and when to be there. A game engine is not so easily tamed because it's really a set of rules and events that you set in motion. Things like fog and waves have their own laws and physics in a game engine, so you can't just push a button and turn them off instantly; they have to die down. It's harder to control, theatrically, but it has more life.'

Vincs also found it challenging to bring the working culture of a 3D production environment together with a theatre environment. 'They have different timescales, different conventions,' she says, 'But for me, it was incredibly exciting. It created all kinds of new possibilities with theatre companies, ballet companies. I'm excited about exploring what it means to bring these new creative cultures together.'

Mills agrees enthusiastically. 'When the two worlds came together, welded by the power of the orchestra, something magical happened, because we allowed the voice and scenic intentions of the composer to be realised in a way we could never have thought possible.'

Take a look behind the scenes of The Flying Dutchman 3D