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Arts of Hong Kong 2022: Immersive, interactive opera experience Laila to make Asian premiere at 50th HKAF

© Ekho Collective

What does the opera of the future look like? The Finnish National Opera and Ballet (FNOB) think they have an idea, with their tech-driven Laila, an immersive and interactive opera experience, set to make its Asian premiere at the 50th Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF) in 2022. Scheduled to take place at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum from 25th February 2022, the experience will be free of charge to the public upon registration, with further details to be announced at a later date.

Created for the FNOB by world-renowned composer and conductor Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen, dramaturg Ms Paula Vesala, sound designer Mr Tuomas Norvio and arts and technology specialists the Ekho Collective, Laila incorporates Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR), video-projection mapping, 360 spatial sound and real time sensors to offer a unique, immersive and interactive arts experience in the dome-shaped performance space.

© Ekho Collective

Laila brings together artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) to show what happens when opera is combined with cutting edge technology, and is an exciting example of what can be achieved in arts and technology,” says Victor Cha, Chairman of the HKAF.

“This is the focus of Hong Kong’s development today, and the project will also encompass educational and outreach activities surrounding art and technology, reaching out to students and communities through comprehensive ancillary events.”

– Victor Cha, Chairman of the HKAF

“The Hong Kong Jockey Club is delighted to be sponsoring this groundbreaking interactive opera. Art and technology blends two elements the Club cares about, which is to build a culturally vibrant Hong Kong while using technology to improve lives,” says Leong Cheung, Executive Director, Charities and Community of sponsors Hong Kong Jockey Club. “By integrating art and technology, we can bring positive impacts to the community, particular to the new generation, and we look forward to promoting more of such projects locally.”

Laila was born out of Opera Beyond, the FNOB’s international open call which started in 2019 for concepts of an immersive, interactive art piece. The work was selected as the winning proposal out of 195 applications, and its creative team have brought the concept to fruition in collaboration with the FNOB. The intent behind the open call was to play with elements in an opera house without quite being an opera, and in the case of Laila, no longer has traditions such as a performer on ‘stage’, no conductor, and no seats.

More specifically, the project’s title takes its name from ‘Laila’, the main character within the experience, as she invites audiences to enter the dome, whereupon the ‘opera’ they will experience is completely unique, with both sound and visuals shifting and evolving based on one’s own movements and interactions. Using a self-learning code that mirrors its creator’s failures and successes, no longer is the audience simply a passive viewer, but an active creator, as they shape reality together with their fellow audience members.

Laila was also recently awarded the prestigious FEDORA Digital Prize for 2020. Europe’s largest opera and ballet competition, the FEDORA Prizes foster and reward new forms of artistic expression and access to opera and ballet through digital innovation. On selecting Laila as its winner, the judges recognised that “the work makes bold use of new technologies while extending reality into a mesmerising and collaborative experience”.

© Ekho Collective

“It’s a pleasure to look forward to future possibilities of the performing arts as it converges with technology,” says Tisa Ho, Executive Director of the HKAF. “The arts has helped us remain connected during this period of isolation, and has stimulated new ways for artists and audiences to reach each other.”

“I believe art and technology will continue to serve us even when we’re back together, to help understand meaning and nuance in new ways, to better understand our common humanity, and achieve new breakthroughs in artistry and appreciation.”

– Tisa Ho, Executive Director of the HKAF

Laila then exemplifies exemplifies some of these possibilities,” she continues. “Powered by AI and VR, it will embrace the audience in a co-creation of a uniquely personal opera experience. Over the years, HKAF has presented many adventurous and creative productions, but we’re truly breaking new ground with Laila, which makes the perfect project for our 50th anniversary milestone. I feel like we’re on the cusp of a new era in the next 50 years, with many new possibilities for artists and audiences to communicate and co-create, and I look forward to exploring these opportunities in the years to come.”

Laila is about creating an interactive experience, and we chose this project from the open call because it used all these things that didn’t exist 10 years ago, and how we were interested in how when visitors enter, he or she with their own actions influences the experience, and everyone gets a different experience,” says Laila co-creator and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. “A whole generation of audience members have now grown up with computer games, and thus have this idea that they are able to influence the narrative of what they’re experiencing. We felt it was about time for classical music to embrace that concept, to be in an interactive dialogue for once.”

Ms Lilli Paasikivi, Artistic Director of Opera at the FNOB, referenced Maestro Salonen’s strong desire to revolutionise classical music for contributing to the development of Laila. “Esa-Pekka expressed strongly his interest in the use of new technologies in classical music. Laila has been a great opportunity for us to launch an expedition to integrate technology in our performances, creating new tools while educating ourselves in this field.”

© Ekho Collective

It seems almost prescient then that this project preceded the pandemic, and somehow, their processes could all be conducted in isolation, allowing the work to be created remotely. “We actually recorded every instrument and singer separately, so the experience has many isolated tracks that are placed within the 360 degree space and activating or moving freely,” says Salonen. “Over the pandemic, arts companies have been changing the method of distribution and consumption – by pre-recording a performance and streaming it, people are still enjoying the same work, but in a different format.”

“But with Laila, it takes things one step further, where we are incorporating both a ‘live’ element by having prerecorded material that is being processed in real time. I believe that tech should find a way to work in symbiosis with live performances, informing, challenging and supporting each other, and that is the future.”

Laila co-creator and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen

“Perhaps, one day we will become hybrids where we are connected to the digital realm 24/7, with headsets on us all the time where we are linked to a neural network,” he continues. “And the nature of opera productions will change when everyone is carrying around an AR device, and we might no longer want a set made of cardboard and paint when we can beam the experience straight into the retina of the audience.”

Following the success of Opera Beyond in promoting Arts Tech through the creative open call, the Festival has curated a series of outreach and education events commencing in May 2021, leading up to the 50th HKAF in 2022. Fronted by the young local artist Mr Zeno Koo, Outreach Ambassador for the HKAF’s special project Laila, these initiatives aim to promote wider awareness of Arts Tech, as well as cultivating ideas among diverse local audiences and the younger generation. In the year-long series of outreach and education activities, Mr Koo will join and experience the learning process alongside the students.

The first Laila outreach and education activity to be rolled out is the “Arts Tech Creative Competition”, for which an open call for proposals from students will start on 20 May 2021. Shortlisted proposals will be showcased to the public during the 50th HKAF in 2022. There will also be performances at secondary schools in an immersive and interactive setting, which will be organised in the new academic year, starting from September 2021. A unique guided tour will be curated, enabling students to experience Laila and the complementary exhibition in February and March 2022.

Laila is scheduled to take place at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum from 25th February 2022, the experience will be free of charge to the public upon registration, with further details to be announced at a later date.

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