“Live in concert” takes on a whole new meaning — Mark Trompeteler reports on a sold-out English National Opera evening that used an old theatrical trick and modern technology to bring the long-deceased Maria Callas back on stage once more.


AS A PRESENT FOR MY wife, recently our son bought us tickets to a performance at the London Coliseum. A third of the way back in the front stalls, thanks to the use of two front-of-stage digital cinema projectors, we saw what appeared to be the living image of the (long-dead since 1977) Maria Callas walk on stage to give a 115-minute concert of her greatest arias, accompanied by a live orchestra. It was quite a contrast from the days of three off-stage Cinerama projectors and the former glories of Cinerama at the Coliseum. This was an altogether new projection technology that thrilled the audience. The 2,400 seat London Coliseum was sold out and the audience captivated by the dead diva’s performance.


No need for 3D glasses
The realistic image appeared three-dimensional and rendered in the round — she could turn around, walk about and adjust her dress and drapes, gesture and perform with emotion just as she used to in concert. Though you can find footage online, the image looked far more realistic “live” and the sound was fabulous with vocals localised to the hologram and made more realistic by the opera house acoustics.


Featuring arguably the greatest singer of the 20th century, the Callas World Hologram Tour presents viewers with an eery, almost spectral — but also radiant — on stage image experience. In white satin gown and red stole with minute movements of her hands and the subtlest facial gestures recreated, the Callas on stage is very lifelike, her voice from an especially produced compilation of her recordings, with a 60-piece live orchestra accompanying. As she walked on and off stage her image rippled very slightly as the projected image passed from one projectors to the other. Also as she walked past members of the orchestra you could see through the image and faintly view musicians through her. When she was centre stage with nothing behind her except black, the projection and stage lighting made her look solid and realistic.


The ethereal presence of Pepper’s Ghost
Produced by a company called Base Hologram — a subsidiary of Base Entertainment — American stage director Stephen Wadsworth is creative director for the Callas Hologram World Tour. Brian Becker, CEO of Base Entertainment, told the press at the time “We’re celebrating iconic performers and theirperformances and presenting them to audiences to either see again, or audiences see for the first time.” The simple technology used is a variation of the Victorian theatrical illusion “Pepper’s Ghost” [Ed: see our article on the subject in the March 2018 issue]. The realistic image is projected onto a thin metallic — near invisible — gauze rigged at an angle and lit to be imperceptible to the audience. The image appears on the stage space behind the gauze and has the illusion of being three dimensional when it actually is not. “This is a 3-D illusion… But ‘holographic technology’ or ‘hologram’ is just a good name that people recognise,” explained Becker.


The concert was produced by meticulously editing a programme of the singer’s filmed performances to make up the 115 minute running time. On the visual side, a body double and actress with the same body type and measurements as Callas, was auditioned and cast. For 12 weeks she learned and practised Callas’s every movement and gesture and facial expression from original filmed performances. A computer-generated likeness of Callas’s head and face was produced with the mouth exactly synched to the recorded vocals.


On the audio side, the edited soundtrack had all the music removed so just the vocals remained on the finished digital file that was be projected. The actress was then filmed in the best definition, literally re-performing the edited compilation of the original low-definition colour and monochrome versions of Callas’s performances. The CGI face was superimposed on the high-definition film and the high- definition moving image file for the concert was then ready with a synched soundtrack of just the vocals and without an orchestra.


A click track was prepared to help synch the live orchestra with the new film file. Each musician has the score and an earpiece as does the conductor. Rehearsals took place with the film and the click track played into their earpieces. The click track helps the musicians, orchestra and conductor keep in synch with the Callas “hologram” on stage.


Modern images, traditional instruments
Holo-Gauze is a theatrical gauze combined with a highly reflective metallic coating. It has the property that it will solidly reflect projected images, but it also reveals or shows anything behind, when carefully lit. This means projected images and live action can be blended seamlessly and become part of the same performance. At one point in this concert the conductor even appeared to shake hands with the projected Callas. Two Epson Pro-L laser projectors placed low on the front of the stage projected “Callas” onto the gauze. The effect was stunning and it seems the realism of these projected “holograms” of past performance icons is getting better and better. Callas did effectively join us at the opera house, walk onto the stage and off, and sing a selection of the most beautiful arias with a live orchestra. It was a new type of projected moving image performance which I have never experienced before. The audience seemed to love the concert even if — on one or two occasions — they could possibly see through the magic.
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