Opera hackathon yields cutting-edge ideas to modernize 400-year-old art form

San Diego Opera General Director David Bennett, center right, talks to participants in the company's two-day Opera Hack event on July 27 at Microsoft offices in San Diego.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

At weekend event, San Diego Opera brought together opera industry leaders with experts in virtual reality, sonic-mapping, machine learning, 3D printing and more


In 1597, the world’s first opera was performed in Florence, Italy. More than 400 years later, the venerable art form is still being presented in largely the same form, with the world’s best-trained singers and symphony musicians performing without amplification in large theatrical halls.

And there’s the rub. Opera is the world’s most expensive art form to produce, but its audience is aging and declining as new, more modern, immersive and less costly art forms have captured the public imagination. Can opera in the 21st century cut its costs and expand its audience by embracing new ideas and technology?

That was the question posed last weekend at Opera Hack, a two-day “ideation” summit hosted by San Diego Opera on July 27 and 28 at Microsoft’s offices in the UTC area. The weekend conference — modeled after the software-hacking events born 20 years ago in the Silicon Valley — drew a diverse group of opera industry composers, librettists, producers, directors and designers as well as experts in the fields of virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning, software design, creative coding and 3D printing.

Although the specific ideas generated during the Opera Hack won’t be revealed until mid-August, San Diego Opera General Director David Bennett said the project surpassed anything he imagined when he came up with the idea in 2016.

“I always said the success of the event would be based on getting the right people in the room, and we clearly did that,” Bennett said. “It was a huge success.”

The Opera Hack was funded through a $150,000 innovation grant from Opera America, supported by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation and sponsored by Microsoft. The idea behind the innovation grants — Opera America awarded 20 nationwide in 2018 — was to provide a safety net for opera companies to experiment with new technologies in an era when tight budgets prevent risk-taking.

Bennett, working with his creative team at San Diego Opera, said the idea for the first-of-its-kind arts hackathon seemed a good fit for San Diego because the city is home to both a 54-year-old opera company and a thriving technology community. Although San Diego Opera hosted the event, all ideas that come out of the summit will be”replicable” so they can be shared with other opera companies.

One of the ideas discussed at Opera Hack was the use of augmented reality headsets to expand the interactivity of operas, like the supertitles, which are the English translation of foreign-language operas, usually projected on screens above the stage. There was also a discussion of using virtual reality to map the interiors of the theaters that opera companies use as well as the use of 3D printing technology to create low-cost costume, prop and scenic elements.

Opera singer, composer and director David Adam Moore talks about innovation at San Diego Opera's Opera Hack summit on July 27 in San Diego.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Several ideas involved using technology such as software analytics, machine learning and venue-mapping to reduce the cost of producing scenery and costumes, which are among the most costly elements of opera productions. One idea involves creating an online database that producers and scenery designers could use to virtually create a three-dimensional scenic design inside a digitally mapped theater to determine how that scenery would fit in the space and what construction materials would work best for the venue, Bennett said.

Last season, San Diego Opera was forced to postpone a production of “Hansel and Gretel” because the company discovered after announcing the production that its rented scenery was too large to fit on the stage of the Balboa Theatre. Technology like this virtual database might eliminate problems like this in the future.

The format of the Opera Hack was developed over the past year by project manager Angel Mannion, who appointed an eight-member advisory board to collaborate with the 40 hackathon participants from the U.S. and Canada. As a singer, a photographer and the former social media coordinator for San Diego Opera, Mannion said the Hack’s logistics and structure was designed to take a look behind the curtain of opera.

“I took advantage of my job ... to study all the components of opera that the public doesn’t normally get to see and quickly came to the conclusion that technology can save the industry a lot of money,” said Mannion, who’s now based in Colorado but will work over the next year to disseminate the ideas gleaned from Opera Hack to other opera companies.

The advisory team for Opera Hack included Chris Warren, a sound artist who teaches sound design and digital composition at San Diego State University; Ryan Hunt, lead software engineer for the Walt Disney Company; user interface expert Matt Witkamp of Kampfire Studios; lighting designer and 3D printing expert Anne E. McMills; scenery and media designer C. Murdock Lucas; opera singer and virtual reality producer Victoria Robertson; and the co-founders of the creative collective GLMMR: opera singer, director and interactive media artist David Adam Moore and director and production designer Vita Tzykun.

Warren said he was impressed by the “brilliant” ideas he heard at the summit, which he said will bring opera to new locations, reduce the barriers for entry, expand participation and “create the truly sublime.”

“I’m excited that we were able to bring so many of the best minds in the industry together to discuss the challenges we face and brainstorm around creative solutions. The ideas were fresh and innovative and, above all else, useful. In this era of budget cuts and recycled productions, it was inspiring to see a beautiful reminder of how vibrant this art form can be,” Warren said.

Advisory team member C. Murdock Lucas said he felt like the ideas that came out of Opera Hack have the potential for industry-changing impact.

“Angel Mannion and the team at San Diego Opera put together an international gathering of artists and technology experts that are committed to revolutionizing the opera world. The energy in the room was palpable, and the participant’s generosity of communication was remarkable,” Lucas said. “We believe that technology and the arts together can gives us the power to communicate directly with the fierce urgency of now.”

San Diego City Councilwoman Barbara Bry also attended the summit and said in a statement: “I support this initiative and look forward to learning more about the ideas that develop from the hackathon over the coming year.”

At Opera Hack, participants broke into cross-discipline teams to develop ideas that could move on to the next stage of research and development. Six proposals were submitted by Monday and Bennett said he expected another three or four to trickle in this past week.

Bennett and the team of advisers will select the winning team, or teams, to receive a development grant to further flesh out their idea over the next year. The total grant amount is $40,000, half of which will be awarded after the winners announcement is made on Aug. 11. The other half will be awarded at an agreed-upon development milestone. Bennett said it’s possible more than one idea will move forward if there’s enough grant money available.

In summer 2020, Bennett said the winning proposals will be introduced to the public. How that will be revealed has not been determined but Bennett said it could take the form of a mini-expo or a website.

GLMMR co-founders Tzykun and Moore — whose innovative multimedia production of “Soldier Songs” was produced by San Diego Opera in 2016 — said the industry is ripe for change.

Tzykun said that when opera originated as an art form, it was at the cutting edge of theatrical technology and a collaborate art form that encouraged cross-medium collaboration.

“During the late 19th and 20th centuries, however, it seems that opera started to slip back and become more conservative and archaic,” she said, in comments following Opera Hack. “While theater and dance were breaking new ground, operatic productions tended to repeat the same classic repertoire in shows that looked very similar to one another. It seemed that ‘traditional’ opera was somehow understood as being non-adventurous, and that its main task was to preserve the status quo rather than to innovate.”

Tzykun said America has been experiencing an operatic renaissance in the past decade, with dozens of world premieres commissioned and performed nationwide, but aside from using video projections, these new works are not, for the most part, incorporating the cutting-
edge technology that can enhance storytelling and deepen the entire experience.

“While in the past, technology and the operatic art form went hand in hand, now there seems to be this large gap between the two,” she said. “It is my hope that Opera Hack is going to kick off and revive a tradition of real cross-disciplinary collaboration in an effort to breach that gap and not only help audiences to connect to what’s called ‘classical repertoire,’ but also give these new operas that are created by living composers and librettists a modern treatment that is in line with our times.”

Moore said he saw Opera Hack as more of a summit than a hackathon because of the variety of disciplines that were represented.

“(We) were huddled in a room together for two days to find the most effective ways for emergent tech to play a role in the creation and presentation of opera,” he said. “The level of creativity, skill, and curiosity among the Opera Hack participants was mind-blowing. Everyone looked good on paper, but I was deeply impressed by their kindness and enthusiasm. It’s thrilling to imagine what may result from the connections made here after five or ten years have passed.”