#NotMyCarmen: The Immersive Worlds of Opera and Video Games

by Piper Gunnarson, Executive Director

At On Site Opera, we have just closed our production of The Turn of the Screw, our most immersive project to date. During our performances, we not only moved singers across the playing space, we also moved orchestra players from one spot to another, and audience to four different indoor and outdoor locations across our venue, Wave Hill. This production provided much food for thought about the nature of immersive story-telling experiences. Throughout the planning and execution of this project, my mind continually wandered to video games, a medium that excels at immersing its audiences in worlds and stories, challenging its audience (players) to have some agency in their own participation within a story. Aside from the clear comparisons between the immersiveness of video games and site-specific theater productions, I noticed that the similarities run much deeper. 

Video games have a lot in common with opera. A lot.

Even more to the point, game people and opera people have a lot in common. We’re fanatics! 

When the video game developer Bioware released Mass Effect 3 in 2012, the third installment in its Mass Effect series, it was greeted with immense controversy from the fans (the “gamerverse” as it is often called). The ending of the game was so abhorrent to those who had followed the series from the beginning, that gamers took their criticism and outrage online, and even created an online petition demanding that the creators remake the ending. Similarly, the game Devil May Cry, created by CapCom, was so popular that they produced four sequels and a reboot, using each iteration to explore new technologies, design concepts, and character arcs. When the reboot was released in 2013, the game developers took such a new approach to the production design, aesthetic style, and character development of the game’s protagonist Dante, that fans online responded with an outraged uproar and even created a hashtag to express their ire: #NotMyDante.

Gamers are intense, right?

But hey wait… In 2009, the Metropolitan Opera presented a new production of Tosca that audiences booed on opening night because it departed so starkly from traditional approaches to the famous opera. In 2018, the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Italy presented a new take on Carmen in which the beloved title character not only survives at the end, but manages to kill her lover instead of being stabbed by him. Just like gamers, opera audiences build intensely personal connections to the operas that they love, particularly those from the standard repertoire. Any deviation from the established norm is uncomfortable and provocative, often eliciting negative responses from the most devoted fans.

And isn’t that great?! 

How lucky we are that our audiences love our works of art with such passion that they develop high hopes for them, anticipate their arrivals, and shout their love – or anger – from the rooftops at operatic volumes.

So what can we learn from this? Where are the similarities that can point to underlying issues or inspiring solutions? What are the differences that we could share with each other as sources of problem-solving and inspiration? One could write a dissertation that compares and contrasts these two fields, but I will start by simply exploring a few key commonalities found in the undercurrent of each field. 

Artistic Exploration vs Audience Expectation

All of the examples listed above have one major element in common: the creators took risks with their artistic products that didn’t fit the audiences’ expectations. The video game character of Dante in Devil May Cry had been established since the beginning of the series as suave, stylish, cocky. When the reboot of the game was created in 2013 (much like when an opera company creates a new production of a well-known opera), the creators explored a more brooding, adolescent version of the character, and discovered that the fans of the newly-designed character were just as displeased as those opera fans who abhorred the reinterpretation of Carmen.

What responsibility, if any, do we have to meet the audiences’ expectations vs challenging them? 

Do we / should we make deliberate decisions to meet certain audience expectations (such as the increasingly impressive technical quality of the game mechanics) while challenging others (such as definitions of masculinity represented in a title character)? 

How does a creator decide just how much to push our audience into new territory? 

And when we do so, how much information do we reveal in advance to prepare the audience for changes versus how much information do we withhold from the audiences in order to retain some element of surprise? 

And, perhaps most important: what decisions are driving those changes that will potentially upset audiences?

Creative Industries Addressing Societal and Cultural Issues

In both the opera field and the video game industry, creators, producers, administrators, and audiences are also grappling with how best to incorporate cultural and societal changes into our artistic worlds. The aforementioned production of Carmen implemented a directorial decision inspired by contemporary conversations about the depiction of women in opera. Standard rep frequently portrays women as victims, often fatally. This production asked the question, “What if she didn’t die? What if Carmen had more agency?” Likewise, the game industry, powered by new technologies that change every day, operates from the mind-blowing vantage of being able to explore ideas and tropes and social constructs that they can then distribute to audiences worldwide, with an equal risk of alienating or inspiring millions of people at a time. 

Isn’t that our job as creators: To imagine “What if?”

What if Carmen survived, breaking away from two centuries of tradition?

What if Dante is a young, angsty teen instead of the dashing, confident hero of previous productions?

What if Amahl and his Mother live in modern-day New York City in such poverty that they must find shelter in a soup kitchen?

What if the game player’s only option is to play the game as a trans character?

What if Miles is a teenager living in a society where his sexual identity and relationship with Peter Quint is taboo?

These are the questions that inspire creators – and the answers often carry a great risk of alienating the most devoted fans.

Embracing Failure as Success

And what if we fail? 

Then perhaps we have succeeded in our art. 

A growing discussion in the performing arts fields is about learning to embrace our “failures” as successful opportunities for learning. What do we learn from our mistakes? How do we pivot from our missteps? How do we pick ourselves up after a fall? Who do we help along the way when they hit a bump of their own-making or find themselves facing a curveball? Do we pack up that concept of Carmen and never again let it see the light of day? Or do we listen to the cry behind its inspiration to fuel more operas by women, about women, and with strong, positive, complex depictions of women? Do we cower in the face of  the online petitions to rescind creative exploration and reform to the loudest voices? Or do we move on to the next project with new knowledge at our backs?

That is not to say that the passionate voices in the opera audience or the gamer-verse should quiet themselves. On the contrary, we are lucky to have such passionate ambassadors for our work. Apathy does not exist in our worlds, nor should it. While both of our sectors – along with myriad others – work to give volume to more voices and perspectives, we should joyfully expect all of them to be loud. And perhaps our two industries can help each other learn how to approach these common questions and shared values with the benefit of each other’s similar, but unique perspectives of making artistic experiences for passionate audiences in the 21st century.

Opera and video games have a lot in common. We dare to take risks. We work within ecosystems of passionate artists, producers, and audiences. We face philosophical conundrums about how to align our artistic exploration with audience expectations. While our fields may seem worlds apart, there is so much opportunity to learn from each other, collaborate together, and celebrate the delightful, if sometimes overzealous, passion we all bring to our art. What if we collaborate on artistic elements in our respective projects? What if we study each other’s audience habits to learn how better to reach new devotees? What if we dive into conversations about how to solve similar workplace challenges that we often face in creative companies? 

Ready, player one?

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