Virtual Environments and Opera: What’s the Connection?
Author’s note: Published on 14 February 2012, this posting originally appeared on tl;dr (derived from the techie colloquialism “too long, didn’t read”), a now-defunct blog that focused on video games and information. If you don’t believe me, here’s proof of its existence. Currently in its place is some generic webpage advertising various things. While it would’ve been nice to know from the tl;dr administrators that they were no longer hosting the site, especially since it has been on my curriculum vitae, I had the foresight to save it, and to bring it back for those who might be curious about this particular topic. Regular readers of this blog might notice a slightly different style of writing, as I probably would have made this at least twice as long on here, and would have gone into greater detail about musical similarities.
A few years ago, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross wrote a post on his blog about the performance of video game music at orchestra concerts. He included a trailer for a PBS special called Video Games Live, which features an orchestra playing music from video games. Orchestras strapped for cash in already economically dire times have used this strategy to appeal to a broader audience. The concert in the trailer provides an immersive experience, complete with visuals to remind the audience what the music is portraying. Speaking for myself, it dictates too much what one might be better off imagining. After all, the target audience is presumably well-versed in some of the action that occurs in various games, and they might prefer to reflect on personal memories and experiences; the times they defeated a particularly challenging boss, or bonding with comrades in an MMO environment.
As the trailer points out several times, the audience consists of young people who might not have dreamed of going to an orchestra concert. I agree in principle (if not with the execution featured in the clip) with the idea of video game music acting as a way to expand the musical interests of those who might otherwise remain unexposed to “classical music” Note that I say “expand the interests” instead of “improve the tastes,” because the latter is a loaded judgment. (I’ll spare you from a digression into the ideas of cultural theorists like Adorno and Bourdieu.) Also, I place classical music in scare quotes because it is a highly problematic term. As much as I love the music itself, I dislike the term for reasons that would constitute several essays. (Ross’ 2004 essay Listen to This does an exemplary take-down of the term, which he describes as a “tour de force of anti-hype.”)
Video games share a number of similarities with film, such as the accompaniment of music to pre-crafted sequences, as opposed to the stage-based experience of live opera. Furthermore, both forms may incorporate music from any genre; this brings into question the parameters of both film music and video game music. Since much of what appears in the Video Games Live trailer sounds firmly rooted in the “classical” realm, it brings to mind the ideal of the “total art work,” or Gesamtkunstwerk.
And now, for a brief lesson in opera history. To paraphrase Dante, I assure you that it relates to video games…
You’ve probably heard at least a few snippets from operas by German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883), such as the ever-ubiquitous Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, as well as Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre. Although he did not originate the term Gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner has become most commonly associated with it. He coined it to describe his aesthetic ideal, an “artwork of the future” that incorporates all art forms: design, literature, performance, and practically anything else you can imagine. The Festspielhaus (festival theatre) he had built in Bayreuth for the performance of his own “music dramas” aided in realizing this vision. The hidden orchestra pit was designed to compel audiences to focus on the stage, ensuring that their eyes wouldn’t wander to the musicians. Boston-based Unitarian minister and music critic John Sullivan Dwight referred to the intended effect as a “wall of sound,” a phrase recycled over 80 years later to describe the Wagnerian ambience that record producer Phil Spector wanted to achieve in his pop music recordings. Completed in 1876, the principles of Bayreuth presaged those that gradually emerged in cinema. Audiences have now become accustomed to watching premade “total artworks” in theatres with hidden sources of sound. A compilation of essays in Wagner and Cinema (2010) delves into these connections further.
A century after Wagner launched Bayreuth with his multi-part mythical epic Der Ring des Nibelungen (of which Die Walküre is a part), George Lucas brought home the connections between cinema and the “total artwork” with one of his own. Right down to a Wagner-influenced soundtrack by John Williams.
In some ways, video games are yet another extension of the aesthetic ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk. The difference, of course, is that their audiences actively participate in guiding the action… at least insofar as designers allow them to do so. When George Lucas made the first Star Wars film, the video game experience was limited to things like Pong. Now, video games have become substantially more immersive, making them more and more similar to the theatrical ideas promulgated by Wagner. (By the way, how’s SWTOR going for you?) As more immersive “total artworks” emerge, and if gamers of all ages (a notion the video game concert clip sidesteps) can learn more about the complex genealogy of the music that accompanies the games they play, perhaps the process begun by Wagner will come full circle.
It is up to us whether future immersive gaming environments are as relatively benign as the holodeck, or as malignant as a self-centred and intolerant dystopia. We must remember that Wagnerian aesthetics has its own dark side as well, most infamously embodied in the idolization of the composer and his anti-Semitism by one of history’s most infamous monsters. Similar considerations could apply as well to increasingly dynamic information environments, with the promise of immersiveness connecting us with many configurations of various modes of information, or Balkanizing us into highly specialized clusters of users.
Still think that these ideas about the similarities between opera and video games (or, more specifically, Wagner and virtual reality) are a bit “out there?” Others are actually way ahead of me in that respect. An entire book and a related website have already considered them together.
[Below is a convention for tl;dr, which appeared at the end of each posting.]
The affinities between immersive virtual environments and opera are more powerful than you could possibly imagine. Wagner established the foundation, embodying both its light and dark sides.
Ding! You’ve leveled up! Please see your local librarian for training.