Three winners chosen in Opera Hack competition

San Diego Opera will oversee development of projects that will use 3D-mapping and virtual reality to modernize American opera productions


Imagine a virtual reality opera where viewers will be able to feel the rhythm of the singer’s vibrato in their bones. Or how about a national database where collaborators in different cities can “beam” in to opera houses via VR to study three-dimensional scenery designs.

Those are two of the three winning proposals that came out of Opera Hack, an “ideation summit” that brought together 40 opera industry veterans and cutting-edge technology designers for a two-day hackathon July 27 and 28 at the Microsoft Offices in the UTC area.

Developed by San Diego Opera and funded by Opera America, an industry service organization, Opera Hack was created to bring the 400-year-old art form into the 21s century with technology such as VR and augmented reality, 3D-mapping, artificial intelligent machine learning and creative coding.

The goal was to create innovative experiences for today’s opera-goers and to use technology to both reduce the cost of producing opera and to make collaborations between opera companies and designers easier. Although San Diego Opera developed and hosted the competition, the results will be shared by all American opera companies in the coming years.

Over two days, the group split into 16 teams to flesh out their ideas, then submitted proposals to a panel of advisers that included San Diego Opera’s General Director David Bennett, who created Opera Hack, a pair of opera singers, a software engineer and experts in the fields of sound, lighting, scenery and production design.

The advisers chose three proposals from teams who will share $40,000 to develop their projects over the next year. They will then be showcased for industry leaders and the public sometime next summer. Angel Mannion, project manager for Opera Hack, said the three ideas selected to move forward have the creativity that is needed to lead the opera industry in new directions, both onstage and offstage.

“The winning story overall here, however, is that these ideas are a product of vulnerable collaboration between the arts and technology,” Mannion said. “I think that we in the arts often live in our own heads, where we forget to ask for help, and that usually leads to re-creating the wheel in both artistic and administrative ways. We found that there were several problems that came up in side chatter where technology could provide an easy solution.”

Even though just three of the proposals were chosen for funding, Mannion said he’s hoping that the other 13 ideas will be made public, since all of them deserve equal attention. He plans to travel the country over the next year promoting the remaining ideas to other companies and organizations.

Here’s a look at the three winning proposals.


Hamsafar, an Urdu word meaning “on a journey together,” is the concept for an opera concept that will use virtual and augmented reality technology to put the viewer inside a sonic world where they can both see and feel the environment and voices of opera singers.

The idea was developed by three members of the Sonic Arts Research and Development group at the Qualcomm Institute, as well as a theater director, a VR/digital dramaturg and an expert in tactile sound. Their concept would use Qualcomm Institute’s existing Space 3D technology, which allows audience members to explore the “space” of a vocal performance inside a virtual world.

The listener would be able to walk up to a virtual performer in the visual environment to listen more closely to their voice. Vibro-tactile haptic sensors strapped to the viewer’s body would also enable the viewer to “feel” the music. Initially, the team will create a “proof of concept” VR operatic piece inspired by a Rumi poem.


OPERAMAP would be a shared database where opera companies and opera industry designers could collaborate without having to travel to different theaters to explore the space to see how a traveling show or rented scenery would fit within the building.

The database would incorporate the use of 360-degree “protogrammetry” to map the stages of opera theaters around the country, so that opera producers could work with scenic, lighting and other designers to see how a set might fit on their stage and appear from the vantage point of audience members. Eventually, the database would offer virtual reality “meetings” where multiple users could “beam into” the same virtual space together for planning meetings.

This proposal will be tested first by Houston Grand Opera, which is one of the lead architects of OPERAMAP, but will be made available to opera companies and designers nationwide.

Open Show Bible

Developed by a team of opera industry producers and software designers, the Open Show Bible would create a collaborative, interactive computerized “cue” book for an opera production.

Most operas are still produced in the centuries-old way where stage managers follow a performance rehearsal and write sound, lighting, projection and musician cues as they go on a paper musical score. Using existing score-following software, the process would be tied into a live-animated open-show display that would be immediately accessible to multiple collaborators.

Creators say the new system would dramatically cut production costs by reducing the time it takes to “dry-tech” a rehearsal and it would improve communication between departments. In the long-term, the show bibles could be shared among multiple opera companies to present lower-priced, turnkey production with pre-programmed digital cues.