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Opera Australia's Aida. Image: Prudence Upton

The Italian visual studio creating virtual Egypt in Aida

"There isn't one right way to do an opera ... it's a journey into the world the composer has created."

Justin Tam

Opera is an evolving art form, and its champions continue to catapult beloved works into new territory: at the movies side by side with the blockbusters, on the most unexpected stages, updated for modern sensibilities, with costumes from another world, or showing off special effects that rival Hollywood.

D-Wok, an Italian visual studio that specialise in what they call “virtual scenographies”, are doing that with Opera Australia’s current production of Aida. Pyramids stretch into a digital red sky, hieroglyphs stretch across golden pillars like lines of code, and the night of Egypt sets in as arias flow from across the stage. We interviewed D-Wok on resurrecting Aida, the controversies they’ve faced, and what sets staging opera apart from a Beyoncé stadium show.

Opera Australia's Aida, visuals by D-Wok. Image: Prudence Upton

There are a lot of people who might be against “digital” operas. They argue it removes the artistry of set design and production, the “magic” of theatre, reducing it to what some people might think as just a cheap movie.

What kind of criticisms have you received of your work? And, how would you respond to them?

I think that there isn’t one right way to do an opera. Every work is completely different, it’s a journey into the world the composer has created. For that reason, technology isn’t a “wow” effect but it’s a new way to tell the story of the opera. We have a lot of respect for the partiture, for the characters and for the libretto; we try to exalt the emotions with images. Usually, the criticism arrives before that the public see the opera, but when people are in front of the scene, after just two minutes they see the magic that conquers the audience. This production of Aida was another great success that shows how theatre can be a way of reaching people's hearts regardless of the medium you use.

Opera Australia's Aida, visuals by D-Wok. Image: Prudence Upton

“There isn't one right way to do an opera. Every work is completely different, it's a journey into the world the composer has created.”

The Opera! musical that you worked on uses arias, characters and worlds that are beloved by millions of opera fans. How did you bring these characters to life in a contemporary context? What characters and scenes were more difficult to realise on stage?

The Opera! is the first opera-musical in the history of drama that creates new life for the legacy of opera through a unique kind of show, a musical wherein a modern version of the story of Orfeo and Euridice is told through some of opera’s most famous arias in settings that feature Hades as a large hotel foyer decorated in art deco style. We used the most advanced visual technology, outstanding performers, young opera singers, new opera stars – all of this in a contemporary and modern scene to tell the story of stories, the ancient libretto by Monteverdi.

We used flying systems synchronised with the video for the performers but also for the singers: it was really difficult to work with singers that sing flying in the air! It’s a completely new way to do an opera mixing different kinds of shows: acrobatic performances, interactive videos, electronic music with a real orchestra.

Opera Australia's Aida, visuals by D-Wok. Image: Prudence Upton

“ We must work to create a perfect balance between music, story and images.”

How do you compare contemporary stage design for big stadium shows – Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West – to stage design for opera and classical works?

There’s a big difference: When we work for a live show what’s important is creating something new and spectacular. Each song is a different world. But when we work for an opera, what’s important is the dramaturgy: all the elements that we use must be completely related to the story. The technologies are the same, but in an opera we must work to create a perfect balance between music, story and images.

There has been a trend of people going to see opera in movie theatres. It seems with ‘virtual scenographies’ that you are trying to bring people back out to the ‘real’ theatres. Where do you think opera will go in 2019?

With Davide Livermore, the director of Aida, we are working for the opening season at La Scala. It’s an opera that’s in the theatre but also a TV show transmitted in cinemas. What we are doing is creating an opera that could be a movie, using the visual language of the cinema to tells the story of Attila from Verdi. It's a perfect mix of opera and movie, with virtual scenography and real scenes. We hope it can be a new way to do an opera.

Opera Australia’s production of Aida is showing in the Joan Sutherland Theatre until 31 August 2018. Get tickets here.

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