Opera on Tap's "Parksville Murders" is a virtual-reality opera experience

Opera on Tap Enters Virtual Reality

Lou Fancher on October 14, 2017
A scene from The Parksville Murders

You are in a room — or more specifically, a shrine. You gaze not upon the grotesque, shadowy figures around you but instead on a dusty clock tick-tick-ticking. A hank of hair, wrapped in twine and nailed to a board captures your attention — until the eerie sound of soprano voices twists your consciousness. Shift your eyes. You are in a cabin peeking through a slit in a bed sheet. There are screams, moans. Through flames you see naked, dancing bodies intertwine as your skin begins to burn. An escape, an open bathroom door beyond which a woman sprawls akimbo in a tub and the body of a decapitated man lies prone nearby, demands action. You think, This is real: where am I?

You are in Anne Hiatt’s handbag. You are in a virtual-reality opera.

Anne Hiatt

“I call it opera in a bag,” says Hiatt, in a phone interview from New York. “I’ve been having a great time just putting my VR headset in a bag and showing opera to people. It’s affordable — a headset costs only about $80 — and the app comes on every new Samsung phone or tablet.”

Hiatt is headed, within days, to San Francisco for participation in SamsungVR Evening in 360. The free-to-the-public, party-like launch at Moscone West on October 19 previews the tech company’s and Opera on Tap’s October 20 online series release of the pilot episode of The Parksville Murders.

Interactive storytelling is the domain of SamsungVR and of Opera on Tap, the company Hiatt and other founders created in 2005. Opera on Tap presents classical works of contemporary classical and operatic composers in vibrant, alternative venues: bars and salons, fringe festivals, public school playgrounds, and other intimate or unexpected settings. There are 16 active chapters operating throughout the United States and growing awareness of OOT as a pivot point for contemporary opera.

The collaboration with Samsung results in part from an Innovation Grant from Opera America’s 2016 Building Opera Audiences Grant Program. The Parksville Murders received support from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts.

The "Dark Corner Rig" used to shoot The Parksville Murders

OOT’s interest in the marriage of opera and Samsung’s innovative technology is primarily transformational and promotional. Opera that is instant, easy, and affordable for a target audience age 17-55 could prove revolutionary for the organization. “For operatic art, it can do a lot,” says Hiatt. “We’ll be producing amazing content. The corporate sponsorship will open opportunities we’ve not had before.”

Samsung also stands to gain. High-tech companies are eager for early adopters: getting more people into headsets is motivational. Events like the Samsung Developer Conference at Moscone West frequently include installations and entertainment intended to showcase new products. Content that draws audiences other than the gaming community is a boon, according to Hiatt. “We proved to them, with our content, that you can put well-done, artistic content into that space and attract new viewers.”

The “Watchers” of the Parksville Murders | Credit: Cari Ann Shim Sham*

Happily, the project has its origins in real, not virtual people, and in high-tech’s still human factors. “Samsung 360 has a creator’s portal where anyone can upload material. We were in post-production on an episode of Parksville and doing audio tests on SamsungVR.com. A curator noticed us.”

Samsung constantly monitors the site, looking for the next eye-grabbing project to promote. “The curator thought it was cool; like nothing she’d ever seen,” recalls Hiatt. “She called it ‘leading edge’ content, with David Lynch-style visuals to the art direction and the final 360 audio of opera. That [last feature] helps further the narrative because it’s not just a film score underlying the film; the music is an uncomplex, integral sound that makes for a rich audio experience.”

Like most things with VR, words falter, often struggling to capture the experience. To understand VR, a person is best served by donning a headset. Short of that, what people will experience at the event is a soloist performing a new aria as audience groups of approximately 20 people at a time are offered entry into a giant inflatable dome. There, they will wear headsets that allow access to the pilot episode: a story about the zero-population, tiny town of Parksville, where women are routinely tortured and horrifying rituals are the norm.

SopranosKacey Cardin and Mikki Sodergren | Credit: Cari Ann Shim Sham*

Written by Jerre Dye and directed by Cari Ann Shim Sham with Todd Perlmutter, composer Kamala Sankaram’s score contains narrative sounds — the hiss of a radiator, the hum of a television — and the voices of two female singers. The “First Victims,” according to program notes, are sopranos Mikki Sodergren and Kacey Cardin. By looking at an object — a radio, family photographs — every person in the audience is able to activate an individual narrative and unique-to-them sound score. Audiences are therefore witnesses, viewers, participants, and choosers of destination and story. It’s “total immersion,” according to Sankaram’s project notes.

In future episodes, Hiatt says viewers will be able to navigate to backstories or character development by directing their gaze to specific items like a moth inside a jar or old newspaper headlines. Although they are not mentioned, outtakes from the creative process could follow. “It was a real film shoot,” says Hiatt, “a long, three-day process. We had to break up each scene, shoot and reshoot scenes one at a time, then paste them together.”

The official launch is October 20 at the online portal, SamsungVR.com. Eventually, all episodes — synopsis for six have been written so far — will be accessed through a single Parksville Murders portal. “Glitches” in later episodes will allow viewers to move through walls and ceilings or transport themselves forwards or backwards in time. Throughout the series, operatic voices will sing solo, mingle, harmonize, or contrast and propel the narrative and Sankaram’s diegetic score.

Registration is required to attend the event with SamsungVR. Sign up here.