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Remixing Mozart: Professors and students use robotics and electronics to reinvigorate an 18th century opera

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived like an 18th-century rock star; making money, spending beyond his means, a meteoric rise and early death. So, like many other musicians and artists before and after him, he was sometimes in financial straits. When he debuted his last opera, “The Magic Flute,” he was writing letters to friends, patrons and publishers for loans to pay off his debts. He died just 10 weeks after the opera’s 1791 premiere in Vienna. That’s when the money finally started coming back in. Mozart didn’t live to see the money or the opera’s enduring success.

He surely could not have envisioned how artists more than 300 years later would adapt and redesign his classic work to engage audiences in the 21st century.

Audiences in Mazatlan, Mexico get a glimpse into the digital 2-D world proceeding the performance of 'The Magic Flute.'
Audiences in Mazatlan, Mexico get a glimpse into the digital 2-D world proceeding the performance of "The Magic Flute."

Lighting director Amarante Lucero, a Theatre & Dance professor at The University of Texas at Austin, is reconfiguring “The Magic Flute” for modern audiences by applying new technologies to manipulate the sight and sound of the opera. Replacing a full orchestra with two Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) keyboard players, a string quartet, lots of reverb and digital delay is one part of the remix.

The other part is creating a visual panorama onstage that can be manipulated using a new digital lighting system, Digital Light 2 (DL.2). The system is essentially a marriage of automated lighting fixtures, video projectors and media servers. Lucero wanted to use DL.2 to add a dimension or plane to the action onstage, a flat, 2-D video world that can interact with a live cast.

“DL.2 allows us to project any image produced on a computer, be it digital photo, movie, animation…and use the image in real time,” Lucero says. “We don’t have to return to a studio to edit content—we can manipulate the material on the spot. Also, it allows us to present live video camera feeds into the DL.2 content.”

As architect of the production, Lucero fostered a collaboration among University of Texas at Austin professors, directors and students from the School of Music and the Performing Arts Center (PAC) and professional musicians and crew from Costa Rica and Mexico to produce a technological, multi-cultural, cross-disciplinary performance.

Part of the collaboration included finding the right musical work that would not only allow for the new tools and their potential, but could also showcase and stretch the tools’ abilities. Lucero knew he wanted to present a traditional work and approached Professor Robert DeSimone, director of the Sarah and Ernest Butler Opera Center in the School of Music.

video icon WATCH A VIDEO CLIP from a performance of “The Magic Flute.” Download RealPlayer.
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“[The Magic Flute] is the perfect opera for this experience since it deals with two realms: the real world and the magical world,” says DeSimone. “The real world was to be just that—real and happening onstage. The magical world was to be developed through the use of digital video projection.” Rich in mystical elements like padlocked lips, fantastic creatures and a charmed musical instrument, ‘The Magic Flute’ is often the opera children are introduced to and remains one of the most produced works in the world’s operatic repertoire.

All scenery in the production is projected onto the stage, and with that world established only five characters are onstage before the audience. All other characters perform backstage, also projected onto the stage to interact with the other singers.

“We use video and video language to assist us in presenting the opera,” says Lucero. “Rather than presenting a realistic place, we often will present content that captures the emotional tensions or feeling of the dramatic moment. The intent is to advance the environment emotionally.”

Video cameras capture live performances backstage and DL.2 manipulates the images to project them on a large scale when transferred onstage. Giant 25-foot images loom above the singers who are onstage, creating a living collage that mixes both organic elements and 2-D images. With the use of monitors, cameras and projectors, singers performing backstage can see and interact with the cast onstage and the conductor.

The intent is to advance the environment emotionally. Professor Amarante Lucero“Their ability to see me, the conductor, was only through a camera focused on myself in the orchestra pit,” says DeSimone, who is also director of the production. “I didn’t have a way to see them—this is a very unusual and difficult concept for operatic singers to deal with. But the result was quite amazing and very well coordinated.”

Communicating across the different disciplines to coordinate a seamless production is the responsibility of PAC production manager Rachel Durkin Drga. Drga is both stage and company manager for the production. She is the liaison of the production, communicating between the front of house, the stage and the backstage areas. As company manager, her primary concern is logistics and making sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to be there. During the production rehearsals and performance, she’s communicating and coordinating technical cues between the director and the crew. One of the crew members she works closely with is Theatre and Dance student Madeleine Lynch.

Lynch went to San Jose to program and run the DL.2 system for the rehearsals and performances.

“To prepare for the show I created and edited some of the images that are shown,” Lynch says. “I also went through the opera and programmed the video cues into the console.”

Considering that she only had a few days to learn DL.2 while still in Austin, most of Lynch’s learning experience happened in Costa Rica while working on the show.

“There was the pressure that, while I was programming, everything I did could be seen on a huge screen hanging onstage,” she says. “The entire production: crew, singers, others at the rehearsals could see every mistake or mis-step, so it was high stress. The only way to get past it was just to really focus in and do my job.”

In deciding which characters from the opera would be 2-D and which ones would be 3-D, Lucero made his choice based on what was earthy and what was ethereal.

Where 2-D meets 3-D.  Butler Opera Center singers Nicole Taylor as The Queen of the Night and Julie Anne Hamula as Pamina.
Where 2-D meets 3-D. Butler Opera Center singers Nicole Taylor as The Queen of the Night and Julie Anne Hamula as Pamina.
The opera’s story arc follows a prince (Tamino) who falls in love with a maiden (Pamina), the daughter of the nefarious Queen of the Night. Tamino and his companion, Papageno, a bird catcher who is also seeking his love, Papagana, embark on a journey to save Pamina with the protection of the magic flute and its ability to charm wild beasts. The Queen of the Night and her nemesis, the benevolent Sarastro, subject the couple to tests and trials of love, truth and wisdom along their way.

In this production Tamino, Papageno, Pamina and Papagena all exist in the 3-D world onstage, in front of the audience.

“In my view, the prince and princess represent mankind,” Lucero says. “Papagano and Papagena represent nature. The other characters [the Queen of the Night, Sarastro] represent the forces that push and pull on mankind and nature, so they exist in the video world and are scaled to be larger than life.”

In addition to the two visual worlds onstage, Lucero added two more worlds into the mix when he made the production a cross-cultural combined effort. The opera premiered in San Jose in July and in Mazatlan earlier this month.

“There were three singers performing the role of the Queen of the Night in Costa Rica,” DeSimone says, “two singers were from Austin, and one from San Jose who was very talented and sang the role in English. It was wonderful to see our two singers working with the Costa Rican coloratura, helping her with diction, discussing dramatic intent and how the costume was worn.”

DeSimone held music rehearsals in Austin with 11 singers from the Butler Opera Center before the premiere in Costa Rica. What couldn’t have been rehearsed was when DeSimone suddenly became the ad hoc conductor when the conductor in Costa Rica withdrew from the production during the second rehearsal. With DeSimone and the Butler Opera Center singers taking care of the vocal music, Lucero still faced the matter of coming up with an orchestra.

I wanted to be as faithful as possible to Mozart's original orchestration, which meant using the same instrumental sounds he used whenever possible.  But I also had to make everything playable by two musicians with only 10 fingers each. Professor Russell PinkstonTaking all the sounds traditionally made by a full orchestra and reducing and condensing those sounds (or “instruments”) so they can be performed by two keyboard players and a live string quartet was the undertaking of music composition Professor Russell Pinkston. Pinkston’s expertise in electronic music and music composition was key to modernizing the orchestration. Pinkston’s challenge was to digitally orchestrate the score, taking the audible experience of the opera in a dramatic departure from convention while still maintaining the integrity of Mozart’s work.

“I wanted to be as faithful as possible to Mozart’s original orchestration,” says Pinkston, “which meant using the same instrumental sounds he used whenever possible. But I also had to make everything playable by two musicians with only 10 fingers each. This meant designing numerous keyboard splits and cross-fades that would allow the players to perform several different instrumental parts simultaneously.”

With the help of Doctor of Musical Arts student Jonathan Kolm, who created the parts for the two keyboard players and re-scored the orchestration by dividing up the wind, brass and percussion parts so they could be played on two keyboards, Pinkston designed a system contingent on what was available and possible—both humanly and technologically.

“It was important to maximize the tactile responsiveness of the keyboards so the performers could readily impart the subtle nuances of dynamics, timbre and articulation that are a part of any musical performance, yet minimize the number of program and pedal changes they had to make,” says Pinkston.

The digital re-orchestration had to consider the relativity of the dynamics among all the different instruments at any give point in the score in order to accurately re-create it.

To make matters more interesting, of the two keyboard players in Costa Rica, one had never played a synthesizer before.

With startling stage presence, The Three Ladies loom large over Butler Opera Center singer Benjamin Westbrook (as Tamino)
With startling stage presence, The Three Ladies loom large over Butler Opera Center singer Benjamin Westbrook (as Tamino).
“Tanya Arana had never worked with MIDI keyboards before but was responsible for the more difficult of the two keyboard parts and triggering the sound effects,” Pinkston says. “She was quite remarkable in that she picked up the technology extremely quickly and is an excellent musician.”

The system Pinkston designed to give him the sound he was looking for would take both woman and machine, specifically a Kurzweil MIDI keyboard controller, a Dell Inspiron laptop, M-Audio FA-66 Firewire Audio and MIDI Interface, and Kontakt II and Ableton Live software. Also, a live string quartet.

Unlike a traditional string quartet composed of a violin, viola, cello and contrabass, this string quartet had two violins and no contrabass. So Pinkston came up with a way to fake a contrabass—by amplifying the quartet and processing them with reverb and digital delay so they sounded more like a full string orchestra. He also used a pitch shifter on the cello to add the lower octave that would have been provided by the contrabass.

“New technology is here and the arts embrace it, but our basic responsibility does not change,” says Lucero. “Our job is to communicate with an audience, to touch and move them. New technology and the visual language it provides us is a tool that can add to the dramatic moment and enrich our lives and those of our audience.”

The last performances will take place in Austin, Texas, Sept. 14-16, and 21-23 in McCullough Theatre. During that time, cast members will also be visiting eighth and 10th graders in the Del Valle Independent School District before the students see the performance, which is part of a collaboration with the PAC’s Lifelong Learning program. The cast will share their craft and personal experiences with the next generation—some added insurance for the production’s survival and continued evolution.

By Leslie Lyon

Banner Photo: Christina Murrey

Inside Feature Photos: Elisa Dominguez

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  Updated 18 December 2007
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