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PREVIEW | Opera & Tech Explored In Tapestry Opera/OCAD Collaboration ‘R.U.R. A Torrent of Light’

By Anya Wassenberg on May 17, 2022

R.U.R. A Torrent of Light in rehearsal (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
R.U.R. A Torrent of Light in rehearsal (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Tapestry Opera and OCAD University, Canada’s largest art, media and design university, have teamed up for an innovative opera experience enriched by clever technology. The world premiere of R.U.R. A Torrent of Light will be performed in OCAD’s Great Hall from May 24 to June 5, 2022.

The production will blend dance, music from a 100-piece chamber orchestra, projections and other multimedia design elements, and opera of course, based on a Czech play from the 1920s.

About the play

R.U.R. stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti or Rossum’s Universal Robots, a science fiction play by Czech writer Karel Čapek. The work, published in 1920 and first performed in 1921, is credited with introducing the word “robot” into the popular lexicon.

A huge success in its day, the play was translated into 30 languages, and became enormously influential. Essentially, it’s a play about robots (or androids, as we now call artificial people), uprising against their human masters.

R.U.R. A Torrent of Light takes the premise and gives it a feminist lens. It jumps ahead just a little to a near future where AI is even more inextricably intertwined with modern life.

The new work was written by Governor General award-winner Nicolas Billon, and composed by Nicole Lizée in her full-length operatic debut. The performances are directed by Tapestry’s award-winning Artistic and General Director Michael Hidetoshi Mori. Wearable tech designed by OCAD’s Social Body Lab enhances the story and the experience.

About the cast:

  • Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó stars as Helena, a Steve Wozniak-level coder and designer;
  • Newfoundland baritone Peter Barrett stars as Helena’s husband and business partner Dom;
  • Countertenor Scott Belluz plays [Alex], Helena and Dom’s prototype human-form personal-assistance robot;
  • Soprano Danielle Buonaiuto, Canadian-American baritone Micah Schroeder, and Canadian mezzo-soprano Alex Hetherington are cast as human-form AI enabled robots;
  • Sopranos Maeve Palmer and Anne-Marie Ramos, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Routhier, and dance artists Sofi Gudiño, Katherine Semchuk, Emily Spearing and Brayden Jamil Cairns form the robot chorus.

The creative team includes Dora-nominated music director and conductor Gregory Oh as Music Director, and award-winning choreographer Jaime Martino.

Dr. Adam Tindale in OCAD University's Social Body Lab, demonstrating a cello bow that produces sounds when glided across any surface (Photo: Martin Iskander)
Dr. Adam Tindale in OCAD University’s Social Body Lab, demonstrating a cello bow that produces sounds when glided across any surface (Photo: Martin Iskander)

What is wearable tech?

Tapestry Opera went to OCAD University’s Social Body Lab to develop tech that singers and dancers could wear, that would also be intertwined with the performance. The Social Body’s Lab has a mandate to explore the relationship between humans and technology; it seems like the perfect fit.

Digital Futures Associate Professor Dr. Adam Tindale, who is a drummer with a Masters of Music Technology from McGill University, and an Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Music, Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from the University of Victoria has worked on the project.

“They were looking for some unusual folks to collaborate with them,” Dr. Tindale notes. “I got invited to one of the early meetings.”

What he saw in the early stages was a bit of the music and a sketch of the scene, “and a whole lot of enthusiasm”. It was enough to get him involved. The full score came later in the process. “I was originally classically trained in percussion,” he notes. “That was my undergrad.”

Tindale and his team worked on about 30 pieces of wearable tech. “There are a couple of different pieces of technology that we’ve been developing in the Social Body Lab,” he says, noting that development has been ongoing for the better part of a year.

What will audiences experience?

“You get all these lighting cues that comes from a lighting rig above,” he explains. “What we’ve been working with, with Tapestry, is to embed lights with performers.” That will include both illumination and colour. “Instead of lights shining on the performers, lights will emanate from the performers.”

There are some challenges inherent to the space in OCAD’s Great Hall, and a lot of prep to make sure it runs smoothly.

“It’s been complicated, but a lot of fun,” Dr. Tindale says. “There’s also going to be speakers embedded in some of the performers,” he says. That includes the dancers. “As they move, it’s going to animate the sound.”

Dr. Tindale says that working with Tapestry, including discussions with Artistic and General Director Michael Mori about the nature of opera, has been inspiring. He points out that the new production only continues in opera’s tradition of being at the cutting edge of stagecraft and spectacle.

“We’re not introducing any technology that’s new,” he says, “but, putting it on a dancer in the middle of an opera gives it a different set of expectations.”

While Karel Čapek’s original story is something of a cautionary tale (spoiler alert: the humans lose), the new collaborative production takes the robot’s perspective, turning the moral on its head. “It’s a beautiful story,” he says.

He’s also impressed by the score. “You might love Nicole Lizée,” he adds. The score is composed for four percussionists, two bass, and two cellos. “It’s sort of like a double rock quartet playing opera. The performers are all virtuosi,” he describes. “There’s also going to be live electronic sounds. The lighting design’s going to be incredible.”

The performance also offers modern dance, and may interest tech enthusiasts just for the stage magic. Delivered outside the usual opera hall atmosphere, creators hope the production will strike an innovative note overall.

“We’re really excited about it,” says Dr. Tindale.

Tickets are on sale now here.

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