Google Glass for 18th-Century Opera
Augmented / Virtual Reality – Almost 100 years ago, on June 16, 1916, thousands of fans stormed Robison Field, home of the St. Louis Cardinals. But they weren’t baseball fans. They were opera fans, upset that they couldn’t hear the sound of the music of Siegfried, being performed too far from the stands in the era before loudspeakers. Opera goers are a passionate lot, and, for centuries, they’ve been divided about how to read translations of the text being sung.
The first libretto (little book) of opera text appeared in Florence in 1598 as a souvenir for those who attended Dafne, an opera performed in Italian for an Italian audience. In 1711, however, composer George Frideric Handel introduced Rinaldo in London, an opera sung in Italian for an English-speaking audience. Handel sold libretti with the Italian text on the left and English translation on the right as well as candles to use as reading lamps. But some opera goers, because they either couldn’t afford the books and lights or found them distracting, spat at the candles to put them out.
Figaro Systems installed a similar individual-titles system at Santa Fe Opera in 1998 and has since provided hardware and software to other opera companies around the world. They offer OLED, VFD, and LCD seat-back systems and projectors and LED panels for over-stage titles. On June 19 of this year, however, Figaro’s co-founder and president, Geoff Webb, could be found at the Lifestyle-Trimco mannequin showroom in New York City, where On Site Opera was performing Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1748 opera Pygmalion before an audience wearing Google Glass.
Founded by director Eric Einhorn in 2012, On Site Opera specializes in performances in venues appropriate to the story, ranging from a night club to a zoo. Pygmalion, about a sculptor who falls in love with one of his statues, seemed appropriate for a mannequin showroom (an earlier performance took place at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum). But, unlike opera houses, showrooms and zoos don’t necessarily direct a viewer’s attention to a stage. How might the text follow the viewer’s gaze?
Einhorn and Webb collaborated on the concept of using Google Glass. Not only would the titles appear wherever the audience looked, but they would also be completely non-distracting to others (no need for spitting) and would not require looking away from the performers. Of course, the implementation required wireless transmission and precision timing to compensate for latencies of transmission and decoding.
An after-opera discussion, for which most of the audience stayed, found the effect entirely pleasing. Glass wearers noted the presence of a display-area glow but didn’t find it distracting, and the performers weren’t thrown by the strange eyewear. Suggestions offered were primarily just tweaks — positioning of the titles in the display field, a simplified app for getting them, etc. And, of course, everyone would like the cost of Glass to drop.