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THE SCOOP | Researchers Team Up With Opéra de Montréal To Study Your Brain On Opera

By Anya Wassenberg on April 11, 2019

Researchers in Montreal are studying the brain activity of opera goers to better understand the difference between experiencing opera in person versus the movie theatre.

Is it live… or is it Live in HD? And, what’s the difference from the audience point of view? That’s the essential goal of a new study being conducted by l’Opéra de Montréal and other partners.

Opéra de Montréal is teaming up with a company called Tech3Lab to study the audience experience of opera. One of the issues that the study will focus on is what, if any, appreciable differences are there in the opera goer’s reactions between a live performance, and one that is viewed on a widescreen — emulating the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD experience. Tech3Lab is a Montréal, Québec based applied research lab devoted to the study of UX — or user experience — and how technology affects organizations and their employees as well as audiences.

The study of music from the audience’s perspective is a very new one, with interest in the subject peaking over the last few years. Much of that study has focused on issues like the cultural relevance of music, music from the performer’s perspective, and the idea of music’s role in community building.

The opera in question will be a performance of Bizet’s Carmen, with one group watching a performance by Opéra de Montréal at the Place des Arts in May, while the second group will watch it on the movie screen à la Met Live in HD. Each group of volunteers will be set up with devices that will monitor brain activity, and the viewers and opera-goers will also be filmed during the experiment.

Jared Boasen, a postdoctoral fellow at Tech3Lab, explains the parameters of the study to the CBC’s Robert Rowat. “Our primary data target is brain activity, which is measured using electroencephalography (EEG). Additionally, we are collecting numerous other physiological measurements to help us better understand and explain our brain activity results. These physiological measurements include changes in sweat gland activity and heart rate as indices of physical arousal. Additionally, we are tracking and measuring eye movement and changes in pupil dilation as indices of attentiveness, and facial muscle movement as an index of physical emotional state.”

Opéra de Montréal’s goals, in common with all arts companies, is to improve the audience experience overall. General Director Patrick Corrigan mentions the lack of existing research in a CBC report. “There is so little quality research in the performing arts sector. Too often, we are working on instinct and flying blind, and we are also competing against great players in the entertainment industry who can afford plenty of research. Consequently, the opportunity to invest in a project like this one not only benefits us, but also the entire field.”

D-BOX Technologies, the Canadian company behind those movie seats that move along with action flicks, is also a partner in the study. The company is outfitting some of the volunteers watching the performance in a cinema with motion enhanced seats. Xavier Roy, Opéra de Montréal’s marketing director described the D-BOX experience in an interview. “It enhances the focus of the listener, while creating a surprisingly relaxing experience. It might not be for everyone, but I was not expecting that I would enjoy it as much as I did.”

Funding for the study comes in part from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, thanks to the interest of Opera America, an organization that emphasizes the importance of audience research.

While there is little hard data on opera audiences, a 2016 study by Japanese researchers may hint at upcoming results. The Japanese study compared the physiological reactions of a single group of volunteers, first listening to live piano performances of Bach, Schumann, and Debussy, and then about 10 weeks later, listening to the same pianists play the same pieces on recordings. The specific pieces were chosen to expose listeners to a variety of tempos. Electrocardiogram readings were used to record heart rates, as well as certain variable measures of that rate. What they found won’t surprise opera and concert-goers — reactions were different, and much stronger, for live music.

Specifically, what they found was that the audience’s heart rate increased when the tempo of live music went from slower to faster — but no similar reaction with recorded music. Live music reduced stress, and the physical reactions were conducive to relaxation, regardless of the tempo. Other indications suggested that live music made listeners more attentive, and researchers postulated that the musician’s body movements may also play a role in how the audience reacts physically.

It’s a fascinating field, and looking at brain activity should provide more clues as to how opera companies, and other performance-oriented organizations, can best appeal to audience members both old and new.

Xavier Roy, who initiated the study, says that results will be presented at a hackathon — an event bringing together computer programmers and designers together — that will be held in the spring of 2020, where the focus will be on using technology to enhance the audience experience.

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

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Anya Wassenberg

Anya Wassenberg is a Senior Writer and Digital Content Editor at Ludwig Van. She is an experienced freelance writer, blogger and writing instructor with OntarioLearn.
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Follow me

Anya Wassenberg

Anya Wassenberg is a Senior Writer and Digital Content Editor at Ludwig Van. She is an experienced freelance writer, blogger and writing instructor with OntarioLearn.
Follow me
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