> An Opera Grows in Cyberspace
> by Joe Nickell
> Though `honoria in ciberspazio,' a self-proclaimed "cyberopera," has
> been in progress for several years and was even a semifinalist in
> this year's Global Information Infrastructure awards, it is still
> a work in progress.
> On 21 March, an aria from the work will be staged at the University of
> Texas in Austin. Those interested in seeing a preview of how the
> traditional operatic form might change when it intersects with digital-age
> electronic collaboration might get a glimpse the future.
> Conceived nearly four years ago by a small cadre of netizens involved in
> the Cybermind and University of Texas' Advanced Communications Technology
> Laboratory (ACTLab) cyber-communities, the opera grew out of real-world
> themes emerging online. More than 60 contributors have worked
> collaboratively (and, so far, without a budget) in developing the project.
> "I was hanging out in virtual communities, and I really loved the virtual
> fiction that was being written there," said Madelyn Starbuck, aka honoria.
> (All of the opera's characters are based on "real" cyber-personalities.)
> "It was power plays and deceit and beauty and eloquence; and I went to an
> opera and realized it was the same thing."
> Over the course of three years, contributors from around the world worked
> on the plot and libretto, a final version of which was posted online early
> this year. "I was besieged by people's stories of love affairs and
> experiments with identity and other stuff they've experienced on the
> Internet," said Starbuck.
> The opera tells the story of five people seeking love and meaning in
> cyberspace. The characters' desires, explicated in email messages, spawn
> "clones" - virtual personalities that are nothing but reflections of the
> characters' own personae. The characters struggle to make their clones
> real, but ultimately find they are nothing but text on a screen.
> But in a final scene, honoria finds love in a cyborg - thus reconciling the
> split between abstraction and reality.
> Hardly the kind of subject matter that many opera-goers would expect to see
> onstage. Yet opera, as the seminal multimedia art form, has always dealt
> thematically with technology.
> In Jacques Offenbach's well-known 19th century opera, Tales of Hoffman the
> main character falls in love with a life-sized mechanical doll, which must
> periodically be wound up in order to continue singing. Even Mozart weighed
> in with a few then-modern techno-references, including a song in "Cosi Fan
> Tutti" extolling the virtues of magnetism as a healing art.
> Today, technology has become a central theme of opera. Philip Glass' famed
> trio of operas, Einstein on the Beach, Akhnaten, and Satyagraha, each deal
> with central characters who have had a profound influence on technology and
> "Opera is a collage of different influences: the orchestra, singers, big
> costumes, big dramatic plot, all these different art forms in one place. So
> it's a natural fit for a multimedia audience," said Richard MacKinnon, the
> project's director of operations.
> The first major experiment in collaborative Internet opera was MIT's Brain
> Opera, a massive, cerebral and abstract collage work that blended music
> contributed by audience members and Web-site visitors with compositions by
> Tod Machover and theoretical texts by Marvin Minsky. The work debuted at
> the first Lincoln Center Festival in New York City during the summer of 1996.
> In comparison to the Brain Opera, honoria in ciberspazio is far more
> traditional in nature. Though the libretto for the opera was written
> collaboratively, Starbuck admitted that, "it deals with the oldest themes
> in the book: love and the search for meaning."
> The producers decided to stick with a single composer for putting the words
> to music. They selected George Oldziey, whose main claim to fame is the
> music for the videogames Wing Commander III and IV. An instructor of music
> at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, Oldziey has no experience
> writing opera.
> But he's far from the only newbie in the group.
> "Richard (MacKinnon) was an extra in an opera once; I have front-row season
> tickets for the Austin Lyric Opera," said Starbuck. "No one involved in the
> production right now has formal opera experience."
> With the text complete, honoria in ciberspazio's creators are now engaged
> in another opera tradition: seeking a handout from the nobility to fund
> completion of the score and the opera's full-scale production.
> Of course, today's nobility are the captains of industry, so MacKinnon said
> the group is looking for corporate sponsors. So far, the group has
> generated in-kind support from Apple, Shell Oil, and the University of
> Texas at Austin.
> "We're not making cookies; we're building a Boeing Jet, and it takes a lot
> of time before you have something to show for all your work," noted
> For now, opera fans can sample a few bits of music and video at the opera's
> Web site. Saturday's performance will feature the aria "Come To Me." The
> performance will be available via streamed video soon afterwards.
> Will "honoria in ciberspazio" revive opera's mainstream appeal? Probably
> not. Opera has held no central place in popular culture for nearly a
> hundred years, since the intellectualization and aristocraticization of the
> so-called "high" arts. In a world of fragmented, sound-bite entertainment
> consumerism, long-form art - no matter how rich in meaning - rarely reaches
> more than the converted.
> But Starbuck and company are hopeful.
> "Opera is an old-fashioned art form with a very strong and evolved
> background, whereas the Net is fast, it's constantly changing," she said.
> "When you use the word 'opera' and this new material ... it sort of crosses
> the borders of these two domains and grounds life on the Internet in a very
> understandable and classic realm."
`Someone once remarked that my conducting was evangelical,
for my right had knew not what my left hand was doing.'
-- Slonimsky, `Perfect Pitch'
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