Opera Beyond launches with a fascinating conference of immersive art at the Finnish National Opera


The two-day Opera Beyond First Session conference at the Finnish National Opera last week provided an inspiring glimpse into the possibilities and realities of immersive technologies at the service of opera and the performing arts.

Opera Beyond is the brainchild of the Finnish National Opera and its artistic partner, Esa-Pekka Salonen, with a mission to develop and produce several immersive experineces, both for stage and off-stage. Over the past decade, Salonen’s keen interest on the possibilities of new technologies in art and performance has manifested itself in various projects with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Starting with Re-Rite, an interactive installation based on Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the audiences were invited to immerse themselves into a performance from various points of view, be it within different sections of the orchestra or at the podium. Followed by The Universe of Sound, based on Holst’s The Planets and subsequently released on blu-ray, the technology behind Re-Rite was further enhanced and developed.

The iPad app, The Orchestra ensued, combining multi-angle camerawork, commentary, and digital scores into an extended experience, paving the way for Philharmonia’s most recent endeavour, the Virtual Orchestra. Using immersive gaming technology, the listener is transported into the the stage of the Royal Festival Hall, the Philharmonia’s London home, for a hands-on experience of the orchestra and Salonen performing the finale of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony or the Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler.


Though there has been a quantum leap in sound quality of recordings over the past century, in terms of the concept of home listening, little has changed. Streaming services have provided new platforms for reaching out and marketing, yet many classical music lovers still buy CDs.

At their very best, immersive technologies can provide something substantially fresh and new. With their interactivity and ability to immerse the listener literally in the middle of the orchestra during a performance, the listening experience is enhanced by means unavailable with either traditional recordings or live performances.

As stated in several keynote presentations at First Session, the essence of immersive technologies is not found in state-of the art reproductions of the world around us, but in new means of experience and story-telling. Gabo Arora, the founder and creative director of LightShed and professor at Johns Hopkins University, focused on the role of the new technologies as means for understanding and empathy, through immersive experience.

Both Rob Morgan, creative director at PlayLines and Kathy Wang, director of product strategy and business development at Magic Leap, reviewed the possibilities of interactive story-telling and its impact upon audiences by transforming them into co-creators of a work of art. Here, one can find links between some aleatory experiments of John Cage and the undercurrents of the fluxus aesthetics, though there are also substantial differences.


Several productions featuring virtual reality and augmented reality within the context of a live performance were examined in detail by Sarah Ellis, director of digital development for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Richard Slaney, managing director of 59 productions, Mathis Nitschke, composer of interactive operas, and Tanja Basatamow, digital artist and researcher at Aalto University.  Although these productions use technology originally developed for the needs of film industry, their real-time integration into live performance adds a whole new level of excitement with immersion.

Alongside live performance, virtual reality platforms developed for gaming, are used today in theatres as tools for production designing. At the Finnish National Opera, virtual stage and auditorium are used for sets and lighting design. According to lighting designer Olli-Pekka Koivunen, new technologies provide cost-efficiency by saving the stage time needed for production design.

Despite the numerous possibilities provided by immersive technologies, it should be noted, that these procedures are still very much under construction. As stated by Domhnaill Hernon, head of experiments in art and technology at Nokia Bell Labs, all technology must be developed in dialogue with content and form, with a clear focus on purpose. As users, our duty is to demand more practical and human solutions.

Hernon and Galit Ariel, founder and creative director at WondARland, examined also various ethical repercussions resulting from new technology. As always, new innovations bring forth both advantages and disadvantages, that need to be critically evaluated in order to achieve more sustainable goals.

The added value of these technologies is determined by the content, whether or not they serve the vision and purpose of a work of art. Interestingly, many of the goals set by the developers of immersive technologies bear similarities of those stated by the likes of Shakespeare, Wagner and Scriabin, as pointed out by Sarah Ellis and Sarah Brin, digital storytelling program manager at Meow Wolf, in their formidable keynote presentations.

Alongside all these fascinating talks, the finale of the Memories of the Future competition was featured in the First Session. Eight team from a pool of over two hundred applicants were selected to design a concept for an immersive art piece, to be realized together with Salonen, dramaturge Paula Vesala and the Finnish National Opera and Ballet by 2020.


The winning concept, Echo, designed by Essi Huotari, Joonas Nissinen, Haikki Heiskanen, Minja Axelsson, Olli Kilpi, Iina Taijonlahti and Saara Mäkinen was chosen by the Opera Beyond jury for further development in collaboration with Salonen and Vesala. According to the jury, Echo provided a concept with the most fertile ground for developing musical ideas.

All in all, the two-day conference was a fascinating event on many levels, from visions to everyday realities. Hopefully we will have a Second Session as soon as possible.


Opera Bayond First Session

Finnish National Opera and Ballet

Almi Hall

Thursday 30 May & Friday 31 May 2019


© Jari Kallio

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