How the performing arts are turning to multimedia

I’ve been noticing that more performing arts organizations seem to be turning to multimedia to augment their presentation. Opening this weekend, the Cincinnati May Festival has hired as its creative partner Gerard McBurney, who will “curate” and “design” two evenings dubbed “Dream Project” at the festival this year. It means adding visuals, projections, actors, atmospheric lighting — whatever — to enhance what otherwise would just be a performance by chorus and orchestra.

A May Festival performance last season in Music Hall, where the visual “spectacle” had no multimedia.

It’s being done around the country — such as in Chicago (where McBurney designed “Beyond the Score” events for the Chicago Symphony), and in San Francisco, where designer/director James Darrah has collaborated on a number of productions. I saw his vision for Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, which included screens, actors wandering over platforms, projections of the text jumbled up, lighting… To me, it all detracted from the masterpiece at hand and was just too much to absorb.

And yes, the Cincinnati Symphony is also experimenting in a three-year “Pelleas Project” with extra-musical elements, also designed by Darrah.

My question: Do audiences crave all of this stuff? What does it accomplish? Yes, it can be a new way to view a tried-and-true masterpiece (old wine in new bottles). Perhaps it can succeed in luring those “new” audiences that were weaned on screens and therefore crave the visual. After all, sitting and listening to an orchestra is a passive activity, and requires some amount of concentration and patience.

And now this: BalletMet in Columbus, OH, is actually producing ballet for video consumption only — such as “Becoming Violet,” which I have posted. Add to that the Met’s fantastic Live in HD opera series — successful in bringing the masses into the cinema to see opera, but not necessarily into the opera house — and does this mean that live performance — experienced live and in person — could be endangered?

No matter how great a video or broadcast realization may be, Robert Zierolf, CCM professor emeritus, remarked the other day how important it is to experience “the magic of live performance.”

But perhaps the most critical question: Will people who have had no reference to the arts for two or more generations due to lack of music education buy tickets to arts performances in the future? Until we know the answer, I think we can expect to see much more experimentation in multimedia — both online and in live performance.

What do you think?

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