Cover Inside Laila's theatre. Photo by Kari Ylitalo. Courtesy of the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

The future is bright for Hong Kong’s largest and longest running performing arts festival thanks to the innovation of shows such as "Laila", an opera incorporating artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

If there’s been one silver lining for the performing arts world during the pandemic, it’s the creative use of technology: Zoom theatre performances, the streaming of pre-recorded concerts and the use of virtual reality. These initiatives have sparked new conversations not only about how technology can be used to keep a show afloat, but also about how it brings new possibilities to traditional genres such as opera. One highlight of the Hong Kong Arts Festival’s (HKAF) 50th anniversary line-up of concerts, musicals, plays and dance performances is Laila, an interactive opera that has no live singers or orchestra.

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Originally scheduled to run from February 25 until April 3, the production is now postponed until further notice due to Covid. Until it resumes, Tatler goes behind the scenes of this mega project to see how the international team has been bringing it into reality.

Laila is set to take place in a five-metre-tall, eight-metre-wide, purpose-built dome in the Maritime Museum in Central. Visitors are invited to record their voices, which will become part of the music, before entering a space filled with projected cosmic colours and ever-changing patterns. By using artificial intelligence, virtual reality, video-projection mapping, 360-degree spatial audio and real-time motion-tracking, the audience dictates how the opera’s mood and development play out, so each 20-minute “performance” is unique.

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Laila is the brainchild of Opera Beyond—an open call competition organised by the Finnish National Opera and Ballet that combines performing arts and technology—and was originally staged in Finland in August 2020. In a video screened at the HKAF launch press conference, Esa-Pekka Salonen, the production’s orchestral conductor and composer, and music director of the San Francisco Symphony, said, “The very initial conversation several years ago with the artistic director of the Finnish National Opera and Ballet was that I would like to do something within the organisation that uses new technology and basically is staged within an opera house but without quite being an opera.”

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The Finnish composer is known for using innovative methods to reposition classical music in the 21st century, including Re-Rite, a 2009 digital, multiple-screen installation based on Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring. With Laila, he wants to give away the control of the conductor or lead singer to the audience, and challenge traditional performing arts forms. He invited playwright Paula Vesala, whom he had met when both were students in Los Angeles, to join him in this project. Sound designer Tuomas Norvio and arts group Ekho Collective also worked on the show.

Then, in March 2020, the pandemic hit Europe. With theatres shut down and live shows impossible, the team wanted to further explore the impacts of technology on arts and society. “It’s a weird feeling. All of a sudden, everybody realised how technology had brought us together, because it was the only way we could be in touch,” Vesala tells Tatler. “Before the pandemic, there were a lot of misconceptions and fear about artificial intelligence. Some think it’s going to take over human thinking, others are too optimistic about how technology is going to save us from disasters. We wanted to mirror all these: the optimistic hopes, the fear and, in the end, the beauty in communication, which are reflected in the three acts.”

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After its premiere, Laila won the 2020 Fedora Digital Prize, an international opera and ballet competition, over the likes of productions from London’s Royal Opera House. “People who are used to immersive art were really excited about this new opera,” Vesala says. “As for people who like traditional operas, they went without over-analysing, so they just enjoyed the music and the visuals, which is a perfect way to experience anything.” Vesala adds that using new technology is common in contemporary genres but not opera, which is why she believes Laila has the potential to spark a new trend of appreciating performing arts.

HKAF director Tisa Ho, who has been with the company since 2006, says even though innovative shows emerge from time to time, Laila isn’t quite like anything she has seen. “My job has been about opening up the festival more by bringing in big shows which have different performance formats and environments,” she says. For instance, Zingaro in 2008 was a demonstration of rodeo and acrobatic skills on horseback; Human Requiem in 2016 encouraged singers and the audience to interact.

Laila is completely different. Since the pandemic, we’ve moved faster in experimenting with and discovering what is possible in the digital realm. In Laila, you’re not sitting; there isn’t somebody standing on the stage; it is transforming that relationship which used to be dictated by the proscenium,” she says.

“So it is really taking the opera form—which has been in existence in traditional theatres from the 16th century—and putting it into life today, which is very much online and immersive, and in which people want agency.”

A simpler version of the production, called Beyond the Firmament, is being toured around local Hong Kong schools to encourage students’ interest in a genre often perceived as old-fashioned. Inspired by Beyond Opera, HKAF also set up a competition inviting local secondary school and university students to submit proposals for art installations, pairing the six winning teams with local artists to realise their visions, which will be displayed near Laila.

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While Ho does not believe traditional performances will disappear any time soon, she is excited by the potential that technology offers. “Is Laila going to be the definitive ultimate opera? Probably not,” she says. “It’s a journey of taking the most revered art forms and exploring how you can reconfigure them. That, to me, is the exciting part.”

Editor's note: Social distancing rules are currently in force for various businesses and venues in Hong Kong, please make sure you follow the latest government guidelines and be responsible when participating in public events. All the events mentioned in the article are still happening on the date of original publication, please refer to the event organisers’ official websites and social media platforms for the latest information.

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