Arts Tech: Virtual Maria Callas

In the operatic edition of “news of the weird” –a surprisingly hefty category–the latest entry is Maria Callas, in 3D on the stage of New York’s Rose Theater. Anthony Tomassini was there for the preview for the opening of the “tour”: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/15/arts/music/maria-callas-hologram-opera.html

Like many things today, the promotional language from the company behind it, Base Hologram, seems to be pulled from a sci-fi novel, “La Divina lives, breathes, sings and captivates in her astonishing return to the stage.” Since Callas died in 1977, her return really would be astonishing. What we have instead, wondrous in a different way, is a 3-D hologram of the revered soprano, performing with a live orchestra (a gig that I suspect gave pause to the even the hungriest of NYC freelancers). “Callas sings” some well-known arias, from Carmen, Lady Macbeth, and the like–with audio mined from her numerous recordings, already an object of obsession by fanatics,  and what I guess is a computer recreation of her body based on the more limited film and video legacy.  As Tony points out, we don’t have a single full length opera on film of her.

Okay, I do get the fascination with her, and with Base’s other ectoplasmic excretion, Roy Orbison “Interactive Roy Orbison to Embark on World Tour.” I have found that opera lovers refer to hearing Callas live with the same awe that the others diners at the Last Supper must have lorded it over their lessers who weren’t in the room. Any opera unfortunate, such as me, who is prepared to forthrightly admit that he didn’t hear Callas, and even finds some grounds for criticism of her recorded performances, will be met with an impossible to counter “you had to be there” even from people who quite possibly weren’t there–never hearing the notoriously temperamental and cancellation prone singer in the flesh.

So, given that she has already moved into a virtual fantasy object phase, is a holographic tour anything to get agitated about? Is truthfully saying you saw the fake Callas, instead of falsely claiming to have seen the real one, such a big gap? And the reports of the technology, which apparently even lets her banter with the audience and conductor, fascinates me. (Is the hologram directed in real time by somebody ‘playing Maria?’ How? is AI involved? Just how spontaneous can it be: Does holographic Maria storm off the stage if she gets angry? What happens if somebody asks her to sing “Memories” from Cats? Can the audience demand that Roy Orbison come out and join her for a duet?  She never recorded Only the Lonely, nor he The Barber of Seville, but they might bring it off…

So many questions, and for all my quibbles I might well go if the show comes to DC. Probably would play Anthem.

Still, I have one more point, which Tony adumbrates, and which I would underline more strongly. Opera, already a backwards looking art, is nonetheless a live, and acoustic art form. That is, you connect because a singer making an un-amplified sound, one you are hearing as is.  Being there. The singer’s voice, your ears. Nothing but natural air pressures getting from one to the other.

There is so little acoustic anything today in the performing arts: mics are the norm from Broadway, to high school theater, and I hold no brief against them, just how things are done now, and the art form survives.  Opera, and in particular, vocal recitals, it seems to me present a more challenging case–opera may seem a particularly artificial art form, but there is an argument to be made that it is at the same time a very authentic one. What you are hearing is what the singer really sounds like. Not remastered, no engineering jiggery-pokery, no edits to create the perfect version.

If the whole point is being in the room with the source of that voice, virtual Maria gives you a lot, the image, the orchestra, the format, except the actual voice.  What’s more Avatar Maria likely looks radiant and sounds ideal, yet was remarkable about her, is what is remarkable about any opera singer or any live performance, what happens live, her voice and in that moment.

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