When Anne Harley joined the University of North Carolina–Charlotte music department as an assistant professor last fall, she found that she had to walk through the College of Architecture's building to get to her own. Passing by students and professors hard at work in studios, she became increasingly intrigued by what they were up to and would occasionally stop to inquire about a project. “They're always looking for ways to be bothered,” she says.
In early November, Harley told architecture professor Eric Sauda that she would be directing a performance of Henry Purcell's 17th century opera Dido & Aeneas, and the two talked about how it might be staged. The timing couldn't have been better. “We had wanted to reach out to the music and theater departments,” says Sauda, who heads up the Digital Design Center (DDC), a research group within the College of Architecture that focuses on emerging technology and its application in academia and practice.
As a result, the DDC—comprising four professors and six students—is designing the set for Dido & Aeneas, which will be performed on Feb. 22–23. In an e-mail, Sauda says the primary staging concept involves a mobile structure that will be “both a physical element (siege tower, island, cave) and a platform for digital manipulation and projection.” The opera will also incorporate real-time motion capture technology, in which performers on stage will also appear as multiple avatars (graphical images) on the structure's screens. Other technologies, says Sauda, might include voice-recognition software and software to manipulate sound and visuals.
Harley describes the staging as a “cubist approach” to the presentation of the Baroque opera—the tragic love story of Aeneas, the hero who escaped from Troy after its fall, and Dido, the queen of Carthage.
But the opera isn't the only performance the DDC is involved in. Sauda and his colleagues are also working with James Vesce, an assistant professor in the theater department, on a staging of Tales of the Lost Formicans, by playwright Constance Congdon. Scheduled for early May, the performance will occur in a “black box” theater, a space in which every part of the production can be custom designed. A dark comedy about aliens observing an American family, Lost Formicans is a work that pushes the boundaries of traditional theater through such devices as asides to the audience, rapid shifts in time and space, and multiple versions of characters. Sauda says the staging, which he calls an “immersive environment,” will position the audience in the middle of the theater and employ layers of screens, real-time motion capture, and other technology.
Sauda notes that these collaborations, while enjoyable, are also an extension of the DDC's work. “The environment is becoming more saturated with interactivity.” he says. “There is no doubt that [soon], walls, ceilings, and windows will be as much media as they are bricks and mortar. Computer scientists [and others] are busy designing these environments. We believe architects have unique insights and abilities to help with their conceptualization and design.”
Harley agrees with Sauda about the way technology is permeating the everyday world, which is why she's excited about helping the DDC pursue its research. She also sees the partnership, which she hopes will continue beyond Dido & Aeneas, as a benefit to her chosen field. “Opera has to be reflective of what's going on in society,” Harley says. “Otherwise, it's going to end up a museum piece.”