Q&A: Opera On Tap’s Anne Hiatt On Making A Horror VR Opera

By Francisco Salazar

Ever heard of a VR opera?

Most opera lovers probably haven’t as it is a recent experiment that Opera On Tap has engaged in. The company recently released “The Parksville Murders,” an opera that combines music with film and VR. It experiments with voice, sound, and musical styles to create an engrossing and enriching experience.

OperaWire sat down with Anne Hiatt, the co-founder of Opera On Tap, about the making of the opera and about experience of discovering a new technological world.

OperaWire: Where did this idea for the VR Opera come from?

Anne Hiatt: It started with a conversation that Kamala Sankaram and I had. We had this idea of doing this immersive opera in the style of a soprano slasher. That is really the way we started and then through a friend and another friend we were connected to Cari Ann Shim  Sham who ended up directing the piece. And she comes from the film world and the new media world and she introduced the concept of doing it in VR and I had no idea what that was at the time.

OW: So what convinced you about VR?

AH: I think Opera on Tap is about removing the fourth wall and creating an intimate experience for the audience. The idea of having singers surround the audience is something we do when we sing at a bar. It’s an up-close experience and it seemed like an extension of what we already do in a very innovative way. Thinking about our mission, which is to try and take audiences out of the concert hall and bring it to audiences in places where they usually interact, was another reason. I can’t imagine what better way than to download it and watch it on their phone.

OW: While watching it, there are special effects but the work itself is kind of a special effect. Tell me about writing the music and what was the process like?

AH: It’s best described in layers in terms of the production process, but we did the live capture of the experience and were really excited that we were able to capture the two principal singers completely in the space so you have an ambient recording of them singing and then the added layer in post-production where we glitched in watchers and the black hooded characters to create a little bit of a jump and creepy factor to the piece. In the woods scene, we also did some rotoscoping. It was a real hybrid of a live theatrical experience. We also used a theatrical lighting designer rather than a cinematographer.

OW: The music creates a soundscape and is really well-integrated into the idea of film and opera. Was the music always supposed to be this way?

AH: She wrote the music first. She wrote it with the idea putting it in a 360 space in mind and knowing that she didn’t want any hidden instruments. So every object in the room is what creates the instrumentation. So it’s the radiator, the ticking clock, the static on the TV, that is kind of creating the instrumentation.

OW: The end credit music is ironic. Was that always going to be that way?

AH: As the story started to evolve, there was a lot of inspiration coming from David Lynch. It became more creepy than a soprano screamer and we just kind of moved in that direction. The Lynchian aspect came in.

OW: Was there always a time limit since this is only 10 minutes?

AH: It was and it came to light early in the development process. We spoke to many VR specialists and they said people could only handle 20 minutes in VR in terms of normal average users. There could be a nauseating effect. That was a real consideration when we shot the film because the VR production company said to think more like 180 degrees for the action because you don’t want to make the audience sick.

OW: Did it premiere at any festivals beforehand?

AH: When we first finished it in September of 2016, we did a preview in October for 400 people. We submitted for a number of festivals and that was a large learning curve. But we did show at the Topanga Film festival in California and then we did the NYC Indie Film Festival where we won best VR and we showcased at the Future of Storytelling that happened in Staten Island.

OW: How did audiences respond at the festivals?

AH: I thought it was kind of all over the map. People were generally intrigued and VR enthusiasts were interested in the audio aspect and how we were using that. It generally did have a great showing. I think the fact that it’s new content helped people not be intimidated by the experience.

OW: How do you want audiences to see it? How do you think it brings Opera to new audiences?

AH: We premiered exclusively with Samsung VR and now you can go to Samsung VR.com and you can watch it on a phone or desktop. The idea of putting it on someone’s phone and having the real experience is really exciting and opens up a new whole possibility for audiences. Of course, Samsung allows us to get a huge amount of reach. The Samsung VR app is a bundled app on every Samsung phone. So we are on every phone, which is amazing. So I think the possibility for access has greatly increased. I also think the immersion is a really compelling thing creatively speaking. There is a huge amount of potential for this technology.

OW; How has the audience responded since its premiere on Samsung and have you garnered an audience outside the opera community?

AH: Samsung hopes they retain their audience for 70 percent of the time. It’s great marketing research for them as we present the possibility of a new audience and have created something that may be interesting to them.

OW: Will Opera On Tap do any more experiments with VR and will it focus on new works?

AH: Personally, as a producer, I am more interested in doing new work in that space but I can certainly see other opera companies work with this as a marketing and education tool.

OW: Will this piece ever be done live?

AH: I have a hard time seeing this piece done live but how we are presenting in terms of screenings is kind of a mixed performance situation. So we erected this inflatable dome and inside was the tub that you see and kind of a world relative to piece with fog and aroma. And we had a live performer and had 20 people in a circle watching the piece and when they took off their headset the area was transformed. So we’re trying to make it operatic.

OW; What’s next for this series?

AH: We’re trying to push for five more episodes and trying to get financing for those. We’re also trying to put partnerships together by May so we can start working on the next episode.



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