One moment it’s the Egyptian desert. Another it’s somewhere deep in space, and another an ink drop unfurling in water. Then, the illusion of environments shrinks away completely, framing two people lost within their own emotions.
This isn’t a movie. This is the opera.
It’s New York City Opera’s take on Moses in Egypt. And rather than staging a few performers in front of a static painted set, director Michael Counts, alongside Beehive, has reimagined the opera stage as an interactive, LED wonderland that can morph from interior to exterior to surreal landscape within a split-second CGI animation.
"Often, people’s expectations allow them to be too passive because they think they know what to expect—and many productions don’t go beyond those expectations," Counts tells Co.Design. "I think there needs to be a sense of mystery and uncertainty in a production like this to fully engage the audience."
No doubt, the unpredictable experience will keep the audience awake. But the greater question is, how does this affect opera? Because isn’t opera fundamentally about the singers? Aren’t stages generally minimal to draw the audience’s attention to the incredible performances? Counts doesn’t think so.
"The purpose of everything in the visuals is to support the story and music," he corrects me. "I get bored in many operas because there isn’t enough going on visually or in ways that allow me to stay engaged. My primary purpose is to make the work accessible—to extend my hand to the audience and take them along on the journey of it."
Of course, this is easier said than done, as such backdrops require an incredible amount of work. Counts started by storyboarding the whole show. Then he worked with Beehive over several months to create style frames to drive the video aesthetics, from which the animations were ultimately built.
Even then, though, the videos weren’t finalized. Counts brought in stand-ins to refine the aesthetic alongside choreographer Ken Roht. And only after that wave of tweaks did the professional opera singers take the stage (during which time, even more ideas were cut!). It’s hard to imagine the same deep editing working its way into traditional physical sets, and in this regard, building the cinematics for the opera has become quite similar to building that of film.
Moses in Egypt has been running all week, ending April 20. And if you’ve had a chance to see it, definitely share your impressions in the comments.