Laila, a special co-production by the Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF) and the Finnish National Opera and Ballet (FNOB), promises to be a key highlight at the 50th HKAF. This marks the opera’s first Asian premiere, also its first performance outside Finland. Laila is created by composer Esa-Pekka Salonen in collaboration with dramaturg Paula Vesala, sound designer Tuomas Norvio, and arts and technology specialists the Ekho Collective.

Laila is born out of Opera Beyond, the FNOB’s international open call for immersive productions and performances. Out of 195 submissions, Laila emerged as the winning entry. The opera invites audiences to an immersive world-making experience and was awarded the FEDORA Digital Prize. The creative team behind Laila is recognized for “mak[ing] bold use of new technologies while extending reality into a mesmerizing and collaborative experience.”

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo credit: Mika Ranta.

Arts Tech

Arts tech – the marriage of arts and technology – in Laila upholds the Festival’s aim to introduce cutting-edge productions to Hong Kong audiences. This unique operatic experience signals new opportunities for artists, technologists, and institutions to co-create.

Set in a specially built dome-shaped space, Laila integrates Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR), video-projection mapping, 360 spatial sound, and real time sensors to tell a story on humans’ relationship with technology. In the process, audiences perform double duty, as characteristic of the VR theatrical experience. They become both performers and audiences all at once, simultaneously engaged in world-making and watching themselves participating in it.

Laila Dome Concept. Photo credit: Ekho Collective.

From the moment one steps into the dome, one starts shaping the narrative depending on one’s movements, speech, and interactions. Then, these feed into speech and movement data in real-time. Audiences will carry a portable speaker and are first asked to record a voice sample. The data set will then be analyzed by a bespoke AI programme to create audience-specific audiovisual presentation. This live data feed is continuously tracked throughout the performance according to the audience’s shifting actions. A simultaneously personalized and collective operatic experience in generated in the process.

Composer and co-creator Salonen remarked, “When the visitor enters the dome, he or she, actually with their own actions, influences the experience. So in a way, everyone gets a tailor-made experience for themselves.” This experience grants much agency to every audience member in shaping the ever-evolving narrative.

Inside Laila. Photo credit: Kari Ylitalo.

The Future of Opera?

Salonen is a visionary who constantly sought to resituate classical music in the 21st-century. Among his spearheaded initiatives include the award-winning RE-RITE and the much-hyped app The Orchestra, which operate at the intersections of art and technology. All these ventures significantly widen accessibility among 21st-century concertgoers. Salonen’s ongoing involvement with Laila contributes to even more possibilities in opera, un-making opera in every way possible. So what comes after this project?

At present, we have already witnessed the rise of two main forms of technology in opera. Firstly, distribution technology (i.e., streaming) whereby existing operatic works performed on stage are then re-distributed into digital platforms. Notable examples include the MET Opera on Demand and the Opera Philadelphia Channel. Secondly, the creation of hybrid presentation forms, referring to operas that only exist in the digital space such as zoom operas and opera-films.

Salonen predicts that these novel forms will continue to work in symbiosis with live performances even after the pandemic ends. According to the composer, these creative experimentations will be sure to transform the nature of opera production in the 21st-century.

As part of the 50th HKAF, Laila is accompanied by various outreach and educational activities led by Mr. Zeno Koo starting from May 2021. Activities include the “Arts Tech Creative Competition,” a teacher seminar, school tours, workshops, introductory talks, and guided tours. Laila is free of charge to the public upon registration and is scheduled to take place at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum from 25 February 2022. Further information will be announced at a later date.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.