In this artistic rendering, Oyoram’s digital imagery illuminates Luke Cantarella’s scenic design for “Bluebeard’s Castle” at the Des Moines Metro Opera. Image: Des Moines Metro Opera
Writer: Michael Morain
Whenever a new technology emerges, artists are usually among the earliest adopters.
Last year, when the Des Moines-based video artist Oyoram covered a Des Moines Art Center gallery with LED monitors to create an immersive video illusion — essentially, a whole room wrapped in virtual reality — it immediately caught the attention of Michael Egel, who leads the Des Moines Metro Opera.
“Michael almost literally pulled me out of an orchestra rehearsal and shoved me in the car to go see it,” recalled opera director Kristine McIntyre. “As soon as I did, I thought, we’ve got to do ‘Bluebeard’ and we’ve got to do it now while this technology is hot.”
And so they are. McIntyre is directing the DMMO premiere of “Bluebeard’s Castle” with a high-tech set that showcases digital imagery Oyoram designed for layers of LED screens across the stage July 1-22 at the Blank Performing Arts Center in Indianola.
The one-act, two-singer opera by “the two Belas,” composer Bela Bartok and librettist Bela Balazs, premiered in 1918 and tells the tale of a mysterious duke who welcomes his new wife to his castle. As she pokes into its spooky nooks and crannies, she unlocks seven forbidden rooms — and the secrets about what happened to the three wives who preceded her.
In most productions, the set is minimal, framed by little more than seven doors. When each one opens, a shaft of colored light shines through: green for the garden, gold for the treasury, and so on.
But the LED screens “suddenly enable a new adventure,” said Oyoram, also known as Yorame Mevorach, who’s designed video displays for luxury clients like Cartier and Dior. (Closer to home, you may have seen the screens that adorn the corners of his studio next to Hoyt Sherman Place in Sherman Hill.)
It’s worth noting the onstage monitors are not touch screens like the ones that TV newscasters like to show off on election night. But with careful timing, the opera singers can create the illusion of interaction. When the new bride steps into the enchanted garden, for example, the flowers can tremble at her touch. Her character’s onscreen shadow can move independently of the actor herself, hinting at unsung motives.
Even so, the opera’s creative team doesn’t want to illustrate everything. “It’s about enhancing the imagination, not replacing it,” Oyoram said.
He noted that LED technology has been around for decades. Over the years, he’s created videos that aren’t just moving pictures but instead glowing 3D objects that viewers can move around — or even within, like the installation at the Art Center.
“Bluebeard’s Castle” extends that idea in a way that may even shape the artform itself. After all, when gas-lit chandeliers came around in the 1800s, composers started writing operas that could outlast the old candles.
“Whenever a new tool is used, it’s very difficult to go back,” Oyoram said. “It enhances what people expect.”