Not much fazes media artist Paul Wong, whose occasionally controversial career has encompassed both the radical use of emerging technologies and a provocative openness to gender fluidity. Until recently, however, there was one discipline that gave him pause: opera.
On the line from Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he’s curating an exhibit of work by video pioneers Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak, the East Van resident says that he used to be “intimidated” by opera’s elitist aura, and by the inaccessibility of the art form itself.
He’s over that now.
Tapped to create an outdoor video installation for the upcoming Vancouver Opera Festival, Wong began researching opera and quickly discovered that the art itself is not nearly as off-putting as the trappings that occasionally surround it.
The operatic voice was his passport into the genre, Wong says, noting that “the finely tuned instrument of an opera singer” reflects undeniable assurance and commitment. “It’s like with any craft that someone masters; you can’t help but be kind of awed by it.”
And so for Five Octave Range, a four-screen, multichannel audiovisual installation that will be on view at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza during the festival, he began by inviting a baritone, a tenor, a coloratura soprano, and a mezzo to demonstrate their skills for the camera.
“I had these performers come to a very echoey concrete studio at VIVO Media Arts, and to have them do their thing was quite inspiring,” Wong explains. “They’re loud, these people. Pop singers, you know, they know how to manipulate microphones and perform in the studio, but to see these people perform a cappella and hit these notes at this outrageous volume is quite astonishing. So, really, this is all about reverb and echoing and vibration. It makes you really think about breath and the diaphragm—and your ears ringing.”
Once his documentary footage had been shot, Wong began playing with image and sound, exaggerating the already outsized voices and digitally fragmenting the singers’ images. Waveforms, displayed as if on an oscilloscope, became a visual motif; in Five Octave Range they’re rendered in bright, saturated colours, dancing like a light show at an all-night rave. Sensory overload is part of Wong’s intent: each of the four screens is its own stand-alone artwork, but the way their looped audio components will blend on the plaza is both unpredictable and intentionally chaotic.
“There’s four screens, four round screens, each with sound,” Wong explains. “And we’ve designed it so they’re going to be in kind of an arc, in a half-circle, so to speak. And they’re transparent screens, so you can go to one side of the screen facing out and the sound might be more isolated, or you can get in the centre of the semicircle where the sounds are all crossing over. Each of the four loops is approximately five minutes long—and they’re not synchronized, so who knows what will happen as these loops get more and more out of sync?”
In a sense, Wong’s using operatic tropes the same way that minimalist composer Steve Reich used found sound in his early work: superimposing sound upon sound as a way of building textural depth and emotional resonance. He’s also riffing on the idea of opera as storytelling—or perhaps flawed storytelling, given the incomprehensibility of many operatic plots.
“I really wanted to do something non-narrative and abstract. When you go to an opera, a lot of it is in French or German or Italian—and even in English, you really don’t understand what they’re saying,” he explains, laughing. “They still have those translation things above the stage. And I’m not that interested in the beginning, middle, and end of a story, anyway. I just wanted to work with the vocalizations, to take moments and sounds and gestures and just let them fly.”
As abstract as Five Octave Range sounds in theory, in practice the work should be strangely festive, giving both operagoers and casual passersby a glimpse of something vivid and absurd. And if his operatic experiments lure more people into the festival, this new opera convert is fine with that, too.
“It’s quite a wacky form,” Wong says. “But one shouldn’t be afraid of it!”
Paul Wong’s Five Octave Range will be installed at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza from April 27 to May 13.