Ode to Joystick? Beethoven House in Bonn Launches Interactive 3-D Version of Fidelio
Sunday, December 19, 2004
The Independent on Sunday [London]
By Robert Nurden
Ursula, a guide at Beethoven's house in Bonn, led us down to the medieval basement. She pushed open a gleaming new door, flicked a light switch and invited us into a barrel-vaulted cellar.
"Welcome to Fidelio, 21st century," she said, handing Gill and me a pair of dark glasses each. "You must put these on to get the full 3-D effect." We duly obliged. She walked over to the computer and tapped the keyboard. The lights dimmed and the music started.
The official opening of the world's first interactive opera, complete with 4 million euros' worth of three-dimensional computer graphics, was not until the following day. But Ursula had kindly agreed to stage the 20-minute show 24 hours early, especially for us.
"It's an extract from Act Two," she shouted over the top of Florestan's aria, "In des Lebens Fr¸hlingstagen" ("In the spring days of life"). On the illuminated screen a white shape, representing Florestan, spiralled in time to the music. He was boxed in by straight, white lines, symbolising the prison. The music poured from 18 loudspeakers ranged around us.
On the floor were four black pillars the height and width of keep-left bollards. One had two ropes passing through it; another was dome-shaped; a third was a column; and the last was a joystick. Each of these consoles, Ursula told us, represented one of the four characters: Florestan, Rocco, Leonore and Don Pizarro. When the computer lit them up, we could touch them and direct that character's movements on screen. Perhaps the artistic freedom to become opera directors should have lifted our sprits, but we felt strangely awkward.
"Wait for the console lights to come on, then you can start," Ursula boomed. Gill and I looked at each other through our spooky specs, wondering what we'd let ourselves in for.
As Pizarro made his sinister entrance intent on stabbing Florestan, the rope and joystick consoles lit up. I took one of the ropes and tugged at Florestan. He shot off the screen to the left and disappeared. Ursula came to the rescue and pulled him back into view. I pulled the other rope and he leapt forwards out of the screen and came careering towards me, the music getting louder as he did so. He was now an immense hologram towering above me. Gill, meanwhile, had grabbed the joystick and was sending Pizarro ó visualised as an assortment of white bars ó in wild pursuit.
As Leonore made her surprise entrance in disguise and rescued her lover, our console lights went out. Our power game was over. The lovers reunited to sing the heart-rending "O namenlose Freude" ("O nameless joy"), and the lights came up. "What did you think?" Ursula demanded. "Personally, I don't like the Bernstein 1978 recording. Not his best."
We'd both been so overwhelmed by the electronic wizardry, we'd hardly noticed the music. But, as Ursula explained, these days you have to cater to modern tastes. "Children love it, you know." Maybe they did. Feeling slightly fogeyish, we slinked out into Bonngasse, pausing only briefly to take photos of each other in front of the maestro's house.
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