It's safe to say that you have probably never seen an opera production quite like Jonathan Dawe's Cracked Orlando, which Juilliard presents March 23–25. Using multiple interactive dance projections, a singing avatar, and live musical processing, among other effects, the production aims to re-create the awe-inspiring and emotional experience of attending a Baroque opera, but in the modern day. As the production's director, faculty member and head of Juilliard's Center for Innovation in the Arts Edward Bilous (MM '80, DMA '84, composition), said in a recent interview with The Journal, “My aim was to create a platform for opera that reflects the spirit and sensibilities of our age.”
The work is the brainchild of Dawe (MM '91, DMA '95, composition), a beloved Graduate Studies professor and a protégé of Milton Babbitt (faculty 1971–2008). Highly influenced by Baroque forms, Dawe's music often advances or even “remakes” the past, but also clearly comes from the modernist tradition, wiping the slate clean to create an innovative musical language. “A lot of times I think the music can confuse people when they hear not only Bach but Boulez as well,” Dawe told The Journal in a joint interview with Bilous. “That interests me—those two worlds existing together.”
That coexistence of past and present will be clearly on display in Cracked Orlando, which premiered in 2010. Much of its source material is from Vivaldi's opera Orlando Furioso, which it filters through Dawe's artistic lens. Like Babbitt's music, Dawe's is both highly ordered and highly intuitive, using complex mathematical procedures to structure the musical form. Specifically, Dawe uses the concept of fractal geometry (fractals are geometric patterns that endlessly repeat, nested within or growing upon themselves, like snowflakes) in his music and has gradually come to apply it to music of the past rather than the 12-tone rows that might have been favored by someone like Babbitt. “If the 12-tone row at the beginning doesn't really have any kind of recognizable punch, you're not going to hear how it's transformed,” Dawe explained. “It wasn't really until I started transforming aspects of tonal music that I found the structures I was producing really innovative and interesting.”
Like a good chef, Dawe began with a reduction, condensing Vivaldi's original Italian three-act libretto for Orlando Furioso down to about 60 minutes. Dawe then sought to bring out the inner emotions expressed in the work, and conceived of the idea of inserting emotional “interpolations” which would grow on their own according to the fractal processes. The psychologist Terry Marks-Tarlow, who incorporates fractals into her work as a therapist, created an English-language libretto for these sections in which the number of words in each thread grows by recursive, additive patterns like the Fibonacci series (number sequences that reveal intriguing mathematical patterns that grow endlessly toward infinity). Through these processes, the emotional asides grow larger and larger until, as Dawe put it, “the emotional dimension of the work turns inside-out and takes over the opera.”
Equally innovative are the technological specifics of this production, conceived of and created by Bilous and his team. The work is this year's Beyond the Machine, which showcases creative works that use new technology to enhance and communicate an artistic message. In this case, the Center for Innovation in the Arts will use interactive performance technology to create a host of effects to enhance the opera's narrative, emotional, and mathematical elements. “Everything you see onstage will have an element of interaction and will be created live,” Bilous explained. “That's what's really exciting and, to some degree, scary for us.”
For example, in the narrative, one of the characters sings from “another dimension.” Rather than being offstage, as might have been done in an earlier era, she will appear as an interactive avatar projected onstage. “She will sing and move around the screens as if she were a visitor from a parallel universe,” Bilous said.
Another spectacular facet of the work will be its three ballets, choreographed by Rebecca Stenn (BFA '90, dance), which have been captured and manipulated into a multilayered projection by videographer and projection designer Sarah Outhwaite. “It's far more a work of installation art than it is a film,” Bilous said. As if that weren't enough, Bilous and his team took it all a step further by then applying motion-capture technology to the movements of the dancers, and using those movements to control even more parameters of the work, among them the lighting and crossfading design.
The interdisciplinary spirit of the project is evident in the creative use of technology. Bilous and his team developed a vision for the production that required tools originally developed for other media, such as 3D animation, data-visualization, surround sound audio, and virtual reality. Altogether, the work represents a tremendous synthesis, not just of different technologies, but of different art forms, involving students and alumni from all three Juilliard divisions.
Generally, Dawe is very much involved with productions of his work. While that's been less the case with Cracked Orlando, he said, “I have total confidence that it's coming from the same type of thought and energy.” That's partly because he and Bilous go way back—to 1980, when Bilous was one of Dawe's first teachers at the Manhattan School of Music's precollege program, and stretching through Dawe's student years at Juilliard and their more than 20 years together on the Juilliard faculty. It's clear that has produced an unusually deep sense of collaborative trust—and also a comfortable familiarity. “I can honestly say he's hardly changed in 30 years,” Bilous said.