Q & A: Composer Finola Merivale on her Virtual-Reality Opera “Out of the Ordinary”

“What is opera, and what do ‘opera’ and ‘opera’ mean to you?” It’s a question that has the potential to uproot traditions.

No longer bound by traditional methods and processes (not even 3-dimensional!), artists are now using ‘opera’ in imaginative ways: a profession with some emotions and inner feelings running deep at its core. My aim is to examine projects and works through interviews with all sorts of people active in the multi-faceted world of “opera theatre” to find out what exactly it means to make opera in the 21st century: what is the message who makes modern opera?

It was my pleasure to speak with Irish composer Finola Merivale about her collaboration with Irish National Opera (INO) on the novel opera project Out of the Ordinary/As nGnách‘, the first community-based virtual reality (VR) opera ever created. Inspired by INO’s commitment to bringing opera to people in a unique and innovative way, the VR-based opera draws on the mythical founding of Ireland and Irish sea voyage stories known as ‘Immrama’ to tell the story of Nalva and her people to tell as they set out from their homeland and venture into the unknown future.

From animated 360° environments and underwater marine life to opera pantomimes and a split ending depending on where you look, INO’s two-year project successfully redefined what it means to make an opera in the 21st century. Inspired by another VR opera project, INO challenged us all to think much more deeply about the question: “Who is opera for?”

OperaWire: Why did you decide to become a composer?

Finola Merivale: So I knew I wanted to compose since I was about 19 or 20. It just clicked and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Also, the music that is being created today was really unknown to me. I grew up listening to classical piano as a teenager, but it never occurred to me to think about what’s happening now. Do you know what we composers are doing today? Did she even exist? Did women compose like me? It wasn’t until I started exploring contemporary music that I realized how rich contemporary music is. When I started my bachelor’s degree, I was incredibly inspired by the different sound worlds that are created. Much of what I create today is inspired by my own experiences.

On the one hand, the climate crisis, self-experienced sexism, feelings about certain topics. I also love collaborating. I just love being able to work very closely with musicians and exploring their instruments, discovering new things and learning from them. There’s a quote I love from composer John Luther Adams when asked if he’s considering other careers. He said no one else could write the music that happens in his head. No one else is going to write the music in your head because it’s your idea and I love that, especially when there’s a day when it’s difficult to write.

READ :  FTC Pares Back Lawsuit Targeting Meta Platforms’ Bid for Virtual-Reality Company

OW: What does music mean to you?

FM: It’s a form of communication without necessarily words. In a way also an exploration of the self. It’s also a real treat to finally have venues to perform at after being taken away for so long during COVID. Seeing music performed live, artists giving their all and knowing that I created it created that. It’s an incredible feeling.

OW: Where are you in your education and how has it influenced you?

FM: I’m currently in my senior year at Columbia University. It’s amazing because they have the historic Computer Music Center and fascinating work is happening all the time. I take courses in instrument making and digital music construction, things like mixing and recording. And strangely, I have a professor who taught Virtual Reality. He was really into creating virtual reality worlds, but I hadn’t really taken that class. The Irish National Opera came to me with the project and they were really excited to bring virtual reality into the mix and work with the communities.

Also, using Virtual Reality is a great way to make opera more accessible, a special mission of Irish National Opera. Changing the perception of what opera could be and at the same time changing the nature of the actual performance space, these things are incredibly important to me.

OW: How did you come up with permeating your work with current topics?

FM: It wasn’t necessarily a decision. It’s always been there, but of course when I came to Columbia it developed more strongly. I started using more topical themes around the time I started my PhD, so about five years ago. It’s not like I’m trying to make a big statement with my music, it’s more about encouraging conversation, you know? Each piece is also a piece of me, so if I don’t use these themes, I’m not being honest.

OW: What made you embark on experimental compositions?

FM: I am developing my skills more and more in the world of electronics, while my works are mainly chamber music and acoustic traditional music. But I love making really immersive music that has a lot of energy and a lot of layers to dig through. I just love the excitement and what can happen. While my music is still ‘traditional’, I get more and more experimental with each project. I’ve just put out my first portrait debut album and there are actually 44 original tracks and one electro-acoustic track with a violin on it.

I’m more comfortable exploring new sonic worlds that aren’t possible with acoustic music, and I often use field recordings to help me do that. On the album I incorporate an element or two from nature, although you can’t hear where they’re coming from. I know it’s there.

READ :  SilVR Adventures brings virtual reality to seniors in Singapore

OW: What was it like having a hands-on relationship with the audience during Out of the Ordinary?

FM: The theme of the opera wasn’t my decision, it was a community decision, so that was new. We worked with three different communities as we developed the story and I also gave many composition workshops. We had groups of teenagers from really rural areas of Ireland and then we also had a group of Irish speakers. Many had never seen an opera. Many had, so I introduced them to a lot of contemporary music at first, but also encouraged them to compose their own music, even if they don’t understand notation. Use of household items, music for the body and field recordings. It was more about listening, listening to their surroundings, listening to their world, and then taking lots of field recordings of it. And then we made music together for these workshops.

When composing, after the pandemic, we started thinking about a story and a narrative. When I got the libretto, that was the moment I started composing myself. I went to Inishmaan, that’s the small island where the opera’s story takes place. I started writing all these vocal lines while on this island surrounded by sea and stone walls. Our lead singer, Naomi Louise O’Connell, who plays Nalva, lived there at the time. So we would get together every few days and I would show her what I had and she would sing through it to talk about things that were really working. I would also meet with the community once a week and show them what I have so they feel involved in the process too.

OW: How did you adapt your musical language to the communities you worked with?

FM: The choral parts were written for a mix of amateurs and professionals and included choirs from Inishmaan and local community choirs from Dublin and Tala. I’ve tried to be very pure and keep the material fairly simple for them. We kind of had to do everything in such a strange process. We had to record the choir in front of the instruments, so they also sang acapella. You know, they practiced, but it was still a strange process. I was inspired by the singing and the simplicity of this style. Sometimes I wanted to branch out into four-part harmony, but then I had to say no, this is a community choir. But that didn’t prevent me from using my language musically.

OW: How did you find the balance between “opera” and “atmosphere”?

FM: The whole opera itself only lasted 20 minutes, so we worked with very little time anyway, so a full orchestra wasn’t necessary anyway. It’s already so busy that a small cast and orchestra were necessary. You are in this world of virtual reality. Something is happening all around you. There are so many things to see and experience outside of music. So many people come out of the experience and say, “Oh, I want to go right back in and do that again.”

READ :  AI and digital art: the news of the NFT world

Even so, the score has a very big ring because there are these two community choirs and nine instruments if you count the parishioners. So I think it’s kind of a chamber ensemble mixed with an almost full ensemble. We also have two opera singers. The opera also has many scene changes and therefore there is a lot of musical and dramatic movement. And sometimes my composer instinct would be to sit in this world for about 3 minutes. But because you’re in this virtual reality world and you’re looking around, we had to balance the environment with the storyline. So it was just a different way of composing because it’s not just about the music and the drama on stage. It was kind of like working in an audiovisual space too.

When I was working on the score it was a lot of work with and through the libretto. It was very important to be aware of the atmosphere of each scene. With our opera, the director and I had a more collaborative relationship because it wasn’t so important for the composer to create an opera and then send it off to the director to figure out how to stage it. She ran this whole virtual reality world. A lot of our conversations were about timing, because 4 minutes in VR is not the same as 4 minutes in real life. So we really couldn’t push the time any further as VR can be a bit overwhelming the first time.

OW: Where does opera stand today in its history?

FM: So much has been shut down during the pandemic. And yet it has actually spawned so many innovations. Kamala Sankaran wrote a Zoom opera that was performed on Zoom. Yes, and she also did operas in virtual reality. After the heat of COVID, Opera suddenly feels a lot more accessible now. There are chamber operas, five-minute operas, and even podcast operas.

It was interesting to see how operas were filmed; Boston Lyric Opera also did a whole project with Caroline Shaw and Shelley Washington and many others, which was amazing. I think today’s ideas about opera are much more flexible. I think it’s much more open-minded about what opera is. Accessibility is a big issue for me and I think COVID has helped push composers and companies to try to be more accessible with their productions and projects.