What would you get if Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Avatar, The Matrix and opera were to mingle?
Definitely not Kill the Wabbit.
The opera program at the University of Houston could be the best performing art secret in town. What started in 1986 with a performance of Virgil Thompson's The Mother of Us All, the Moores Opera center has grown into an ambitious program with Ross staging contemporary repertoire like John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles and beloved classics like Puccini's La Bohème. Now, he's just completed dress rehearsals for Mozart's Magic Flute in 3D, which premieres Thursday night.
The 3D means you'll need those funny high-tech and fashionable paper glasses and a wicked coloratura soprano.
The Texas Learning and Computation Center (TLC²) at the University of Houston has unimaginable visualization capabilities — faculty, students and researches can see their data come to life in the laboratory and a 30-seat visualization theater. Usually used for scientific purposes (molecules, compounds and technical drawings for example), the facilities were underutilized, opening a door for creative explorations. What started as a casual talk between TLC² program manager Michael Brims and his girlfriend, a student at the Moores School of Music, traveled quickly up the educational ladder to reach Ross, who is always itching for a different aesthetic in his productions while challenging and adding to his students' experiences.
"My job here is to get the creatives and the techies to have a dialogue," Brims says. "For me, this is a new experience. I am accustomed to creating 2D video art projects. Switching to 3D involved a lot of testing and trial an error, both to create the content and to ensure it's displayed properly and as desired. The collaboration is just an example of what can be achieved when seemingly different fields come together."
Incidentally, 3D special effects have been previously used in opera. Phillip Glass' Monster of Grace included a 73-minute computer-animated film in 3D projected above the musicians. It was originally directed by Robert Wilson, who chose 3D graphics to minimize the costs associated with staging his desired otherworldly scenarios. It was co-commissioned by the Society for the Performing Arts and performed in Houston in 2007 as part of his 70th birthday.
"It only works because it makes sense," Ross explains. "Magic Flute, more than any other opera, is a fantasy piece containing magic and in the larger sense, it's the triumph of the sun over night."
"Mozart would have used costumes that would be equally as unreal, quasi-Egyptian, and peculiar to an 18th century European audience. In essence, using 3D effects for the set is the high-tech version of what would have been used back in his time: Painted back drops. It makes the opera's environment more believable. It's what Mozart would have done if he had this technology available to him."
It's not uncommon to see a futuristic-themed Magic Flute. Out of all the operas of the classical and romantic era, it belongs in a genre all its own, and in some ways, could accompany some of Wagner's works. It demands the audience to suspend belief in more customary sets, or immerse in an illusive world in stagings that attempt to be more faithful to the specific characterization.
Let's break it down.
Magic Flute contains many masonic elements with a touch of enlightenment philosophy. Tamino, our young hero, must grow from being afraid of snakes to pass through three initiation trails: A trial of darkness, a trial of silence and a trial by fire.
The prize? He gets the girl and is accepted into a higher order while defeating the evil Queen of the Night. Not so different from "The Force," where mastery over its binding, metaphysical and ubiquitous power meant induction into the Jedi order, which was later charged with bringing balance to the galaxy by defeating the Dark Side. And somehow, everyone is related.
Zach Averyt, tenor and second-year master student at Moores is charged with playing the first Tamino in 3D. While preparing for a career in the operatic arts, being exposed to diverse performing scenarios adds to his battery of rare specialties.
"Having to interact with objects and set you cannot see is rather challenging," Averyt explains. "Not having something to hold on to, lean on to or things to toss around is different from most traditional stagings. It allows me to grow artistically and sharpen my theatrical skills."
For the singers, the stage appears completely empty, other than a few hand props. But a double cast gives them the opportunity to see how things play out for the audience.
Although his preference is to play evil and horrid characters like Otello's Iago and Tosca's Scarpia, Jared Guest, baritone and first-year master student, plays Papageno, who could be considered Magic Flute's only comic relief. Incidentally, that seems more aligned with Guest's upbeat personality and perpetual smile. Guest moved to Houston from Orlando specifically to study at Moores.
"The 3D set makes the audience relate to the storyline and the opera's themes," Guest explains. "It helps them also relate better to opera."
If it connects the audience to the art form and satisfies the students, then Ross is doing something right.
Magic Flute will be sung in English with English surtitles, opens Thursday night and runs through Monday.