Targeted by art drones

Andrew Fuhrmann: A Drone Opera

A Drone Opera

A Drone Opera

A Drone Opera

Every drone has a human operator. Even self-directed drones on autopilot rely on the human behind the software to give them purpose. Someone is always calling the shots. And it’s this necessary human element which is at issue in A Drone Opera, an exciting high-tech, high-art spectacle created by director Matthew Sleeth and composer Susan Frykberg.

We begin in darkness and in silence. Then there are voices: a resonant, chant-like music for soprano, countertenor and baritone. The singers remain hidden among the shadows. The atmosphere is almost like that in a church. Then, fiat lux, a cluster of blue laser light radiating from the back of the stage suddenly fills the large pavilion. And with that, the voices are joined by the unsettling and insistent buzz of a quadcopter drone.

The machine tends to obscure the human; but there’s no mistaking which comes first. This is an opera about our relationship with technology, and from the beginning menace is the keynote in the dramatisation of the relationship.

As we enter the performance space, we are ushered into great cages made of black mesh. These are for our safety, of course, to protect us from rotor related mischance, and yet, inevitably, we feel shut in. Drones armed with night-vision digital video cameras scrutinise us from every angle, transmitting a glitchy black-and-white feed directly onto a large screen at the back of the stage. We are made witness to our own captivity.

There is no narrative as such, but disquieting effects feature in almost every scene and mark a kind of progress. There are allusions to hubris and calamity. “Surely the sky is open,” sings soprano Judith Dodsworth as smoke hisses around her legs. The echo is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Father and son make a set of wings to carry them to safety. One is saved by the technology; the other, who flies too near to the sun, perishes by it.

At the same time, the technology does stir our curiosity, even our desire. The drones have all been custom made by Sleeth and his collaborators. These flash new toys are quick and nimble and have plenty of personality. The operators, even while they’re edging around the stage, keeping to the dark corners, all look as if they’re having a ball. So, yes, we feel the menace but also the allure. And maybe the great achievement of A Drone Opera is to hold these two feelings together, without contradiction, without letting one dominate, everything suspended in ritual and play.

Here, Frykberg’s vocal compositions are crucial. The drones themselves, as you would expect, feature as musical instruments, each with its own pitch, loudness and timbre. And we’re invited to hear their music not as a simple tone held beneath other elements of the score, but as an ostinato motif. In one scene, two drones dance a brisk aerial duet while the singers off-stage shape soft but rhythmical figures. Is this a passacaglia, perhaps? Is the ostinato of the drones a bass lament, a supercharged complaint, played so fast that we don’t consciously register its tragic aspect, as if desolation were sped up to a point where it could not be heard or felt. There is that sense of something sacred at work, cowled and shrouded by speed, hidden but present.

In another scene, in almost total darkness, the audience is slowly eyed off by a small drone with a searchlight. Is this the darkness of martial dystopia? We’re in our cages, after all—we might be huddled or cowering—and the drone is so close that we can feel the air pushed down from the propellers. But is this surveillance necessarily sinister? It could be a rescue drone looking for survivors in the rubble of some natural disaster. In the end, the drone becomes something even more innocuous: a robotic spotlight, picking out a lone singer on the stage, in the process creating a haunting and perceptibly human image.

Still, the context is inevitably war. The drone is military by its nature. Even an apparently harmless plaything built by a civilian hobbyist is only temporarily demilitarised. There’s always the potential to reassert its first function. This back and forth, this rapid negotiation between military and non-military connections, bewilders and delights and disturbs. The show exploits our weakness for fun gadgets and spectacular imagery but pushes us to admit that this weakness feeds back into—what?—a new telemilitary-industrial complex?

Robin Fox’s laser light designs are astonishing; they carve the space with detonations of red, blue and green, so psychedelic you gasp. He manufactures sculptures out of light, conjuring fantastical shapes from the haze of smoke, so that the gloom and grey are shot through with pure colour.

But lasers, like drones, are a crossover technology. They emerged from the labs of a defence contractor in the early 1960s; and today no stadium rock show can do without them. Yet recent footage of Boeing’s new portable laser cannon shooting drones out of the sky in New Mexico makes it clear that our distinction between war and play is mostly illusory—at least where technology is concerned.

Perhaps the most arresting coup de théâtre of this consistently startling show puts us—performers and audience in one heap—inside a vast cone of red light, with an obvious signification. War is always a thing of blood, however remote the control, and here we are right inside the killing vein. The three vocalists stare out into the audience as they sing words taken from a defence department training video: instructions for the acquisition of a possible new target.

All art today rides with the spectre of what Paul Virilio calls the state of total war. Matthew Sleeth is just making this context explicit, with a lot of dramatic magic and machinery, some of it luminous, some of it black. But he might have insisted a bit more clearly that art keep its human connection with the world. Perhaps that is what’s missing from the finale, where the drones and drones alone command the stage, hovering and swooping and blowing scraps of paper across the cold Meat Market cobblestones, suggesting visions of extinction and waste.

Perhaps the sombre feeling of absence is deliberate. But without the human element there is the risk that this drone opera, with its church music atmospherics, its sense of occluded and sacred rituals, looks just a bit techno-fundamentalist. So there is something ambivalent about A Drone Opera, as if the artists themselves, in telling the story of how we’ve fallen for the ghost in the killing machine, might themselves have been seduced.

Still, this is an opera, of all things, that shows us what we are: in the sights or behind the remote control. But in either case we’re at the interface between technology and art, between two types of creativity: scientific invention and its aesthetic inflection.

Arts House and Experimenta Media Arts, A Drone Opera, director Matthew Sleeth, opera composer Susan Frykberg, producer, dramaturg Kate Richards, performers Judith Dodsworth, Hamish Gould, Paul Hughes, Jennifer Hector, laser set designer Robin Fox, sound designer Phil Samartzis, lighting Bosco Shaw; Meat Market, Melbourne, 1-13 Sept

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 36

© Andrew Fuhrmann; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 October 2015