Porgy & Bess has always been known to rattle the cages of opera’s conventions. This production will be no different. This time, it won’t be the themes, music or characters that will break the mold — it will be technology.
For The Atlanta Opera’s production of Porgy & Bess you will see more than this quintessential American opera; you will see the future of theatrical stage design.
Onstage will be giant backdrops with digitally enhanced photographs and video of Charleston, S.C., the setting of the fictitious Catfish Row and the home of the characters in Porgy & Bess. You’ll see images of the barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina which stand in for the undeveloped coastline of Charleston at the time Porgy & Bess was set. You’ll also see footage from The Weather Channel that will put the performers and the audience in the eye of a real-life hurricane. These images will be projected from behind onto two giant screens using a high-tech system developed by the University of Kentucky’s Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments, also known as the VIS Center.
The technology, developed at the VIS Center through a partnership with Fort Knox, was designed with the goal of building rapidly deployable, high-resolution screens to be used in military training. Incorporating this type of technology with its vivid images and video in opera productions presents stunning prospects for depicting opera’s rich and intricate story lines and settings. Indeed, this technology has great potential for the future of theatrical staging as a whole, as it can lower production costs, create high-definition experiences and provide easy set mobility.
To create the set for Porgy & Bess, two 24-foot screens were made from a new material that allows images to be viewed clearly from many angles. One screen is 15 feet wide with 18 projectors behind it, and the other is 32 feet wide, backed by 36 projectors. The screens can be moved around the stage easily. Each projector throws a piece of a high-resolution picture or video onto the screen from a distance of only five feet. The technology’s software system allows the projectors to calibrate multiple pieces into a seamless image. These images will appear as stills or full-moving panoramic videos to the audience, creating very realistic-?looking staging.
While front and rear-projected backdrops are nothing new to theatre, they can cause problems for the set design and performers. Normal front projectors can cast shadows and images onto the performers, and normal rear projectors must be placed a great distance behind the screens, which can limit the stage space.
Discussions are already under way to license this innovative technology after the Atlanta production is complete. In the very near future, opera companies around the world may be enhancing their productions with high-definition projection technology, creating vibrant performances that audiences will remember for a long time to come.