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A Hologram for the Queen… of Opera

We’ve talked before about the artificially-enhanced opera experience of watching a live Met broadcast. Now the technology is going one step further and bringing opera royalty back from the dead. Sort of.

Maybe you’ve heard the news: the great Maria Callas is touring again. Although this time she’s a mere ghost of her former self—literally.

Yes, the wizards at Base Entertainment—the same company that brought you “Criss Angel, MindFreak” and “Magic Mike Live from Vegas”—has resurrected the voice of arguably the greatest soprano in opera history, some 40+ years after her earthly departure. And she might be coming to a city near you, complete with a live (yes, actually live) orchestra.

The critics who refuse to suffer the overly-produced Met broadcasts should have a field day with this one. But not so fast. While campy and eerily disturbing, it might also be the sort of spectacle that captivates your attention, despite your best intentions to dismiss it.  Not unlike watching an illusionist on stage. You know it’s not real, but yet you can’t look away.

At times, it seems to work beautifully and you’re completely unaware that the apparition on stage is a computer-generated projection. At other instants, there seems to be a small glitch, a ghost in the machine (pardon the pun), as if she’s a puppet and the puppet master is a bit drunk and slightly off his game. There are moments when you hear her voice singing full-out, but her mouth is nearly closed. Well, it’s all an illusion anyway, so if you’re not willing to suspend disbelief, then better not to participate at all.

Ironically (or not), the best part is when the designers of this spectacle decide to make the best of the fun toys at their disposal and use the technology to full effect. Like when Callas throws a deck of playing cards up in the air and they freeze in space momentarily. Then the diva stares at them while they slowly flutter down as the orchestra transitions to the next aria. If you’re going down the path of a Las Vegas magic act, might as well commit to it.

But how does this all happen? How do we get this specter of the dearly departed Maria Callas performing right before our eyes? Was she considerate enough to record this concert in anticipation of the technology that had not yet been invented at the time of her career?

Well, no, of course not. The holographic body of Maria Callas is on loan from a present-day model/actress who spent weeks studying the personality of Ms. Callas, as well as her body language, gestures, and famous report with the audience. The 3-D facial features (and sometimes out-of-sync mouth movements) were created from a computer composite from a library of photographs.

The voice was even more difficult to replicate. According to Marty Tudor, Executive Producer and CEO of BASE Hologram Productions:

“Keep in mind that back when Callas was recorded, she was not in a separate room from the orchestra. Now, for the first time, the technology exists for the vocals from original recordings to be separated from both the orchestra and other singers. As an aside, when we were separating Callas’ voice from the orchestra there were times it was difficult to decipher her from the instruments due to her ‘perfect pitch.’”

This is all very interesting, but if you’re considering attending the concert, probably better to not dwell on the mechanics. Have a drink or two before the show and let the illusion captivate you… just like the real Maria surely would have 40 years ago. It’s theater, after all, and we want an escape. And what better escape than watching someone escape death while entertaining audiences that weren’t even alive the last time she performed?

Brava, Maria! Encore, encore! (And this particular encore could go on for quite a while…)

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