Why we’re making a VR community opera

James Bingham, Irish National Opera

One of the many reasons why I love working on a European project is the opportunity to interact with new colleagues. One outcome of this was seeing this short video sent to the consortium by François Matarasso featuring hundreds of people in the Nottinghamshire area recreating the famous gold medal winning performance of Torvill and Dean in the 1984 Winter Olympics.

I found the video to be so moving, not because of the dance itself, but because of the collective participation of such a diverse group of people, all working together to create an extraordinary piece of film. We can all recognise ourselves somewhere in this film, so it sends a powerful message that dance is an art form that anyone can engage with, contrary to some of the lazier stereotypes.

Opera is not too dissimilar in this regard. We, at Irish National Opera, face many similar problematic assumptions about what opera is, but we strongly believe that opera is for anyone and everyone. We are committed to making opera accessible and approachable, but we also want to empower communities through participation. Traction provides an interesting opportunity for INO to co-create a new piece of opera with community groups and the ability to work alongside such a broad variety of European organisations means our ambitions can go so much further.

(Photo of James Bingham, Studio and Outreach producer, Irish National Opera)

Developing a truly national ecosystem for opera in Ireland is something INO sees as a key priority of its work, which is why the company runs regular touring productions across the country, most recently with our productions of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel and Vivaldi’s Griselda. However, limiting opera to a traditional theatre space makes it difficult to overcome the traditional barriers to access that are inherent in the theatre experience, such as location, accessibility or cost. TRACTION is concerned with developing new technologies to enhance inclusion in opera. Working to find creative solutions around our challenge of national reach therefore informed a major part of our initial thinking around TRACTION.

This led us to the decision to work with communities to create a new opera specifically designed for the medium of a VR headset and produced in partnership with Virtual Reality Ireland. The mobility of such a device means that our final work can be toured to any library, shopping centre, pub or any other public space in the country that will have us. In partnership with the Civic Theatre in Tallaght, Music Generation Offaly/Westmeath and Conradh na Gaeilge, INO will run workshops in 2021 with migrant communities in Tallaght, rural communities in the midlands and with Irish speaking communities speaking in the Gaeltacht. The work produced in these sessions will then be the genesis of a virtual reality opera, to be produced and toured in 2022.

This is a hugely exciting project for INO and we hope to produce a work that has a real social and cultural impact. Working in partnership with such a talented European EU consortium to help realise this ambition is a real privilege and we’re excited to see what lies in store.

TRACTION consortium member James Bingham has been described by the Sunday Times as ‘unashamedly messianic’ about classical music inclusion and accessibility. He worked as Project Coordinator in the education department at Glyndebourne and as a Choral Delivery Artist for Opera North where he conducted around a thousand people a week on a variety of different outreach projects for the company. As Studio and Outreach producer for INO and valued member of the TRACTION consortium, he aims to build a wide a variety of projects to engage new audiences with opera.