‘Valkyries’ becomes a ‘retro futurist video game’ at Detroit Opera

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

If you thought reversing the telling of the Puccini classic “La bohème” was out there. Or the staging of an adaptation of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” in a parking garage was even more outlandish, hold onto your opera seat.

Detroit Opera opens its 2022-23 season on Saturday with a unique, high-tech staging of “The Valkyries,” Act III of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walküre.” How unique? Detroit Opera Artistic Director Yuval Sharon describes the production as a “retro futurist video game in real time.”

Stage Director Yuval Sharon and  production designer Jason Thompson are seen on a composite video screen during a rehearsal of "The Valkyries," which will be performed at Detroit Opera.

He’s not kidding. With “The Valkyries,” Sharon is using green screen technology to blend onstage action with real-time computer graphics and animation. The result transplants the cast, which includes Detroit Opera Associate Artistic Director Christine Goerke in her signature role as Brünnhilde, into a fast-paced cinematic adventure.

“Wagner was a zestful early adapter of technology when it helped him realize his larger-than-life imagination. And technology is at the heart of this production of ‘The Valkyries,’ which provokes you to consider the current state of opera in the digital age,” says Sharon, who is the Gary L. Wasserman Artistic Director at Detroit Opera.

“The Valkyries” is co-produced with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the production premiered at the Hollywood Bowl in July. The Los Angeles Times called the show “a one-night miracle.” Reviewer Mark Swed gave his readers a sense of what was happening on stage: “On video, thanks to green screen technology, (the cast was) transported to an animated digital wonderland. They hopped on futuristic motorcycles and rode through a landscape that looked like it might have been designed by Buckminster Fuller, he of the geodesic domes.”

“The Valkyries” is the first of four fully staged opera productions at the Detroit Opera House this season. Upcoming productions include “Faust,” directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, in November; a revival of Tazewell Thompson’s production of “Xerxes” in March; and “Ainadamar,” appearing in a co-production with Opera Ventures, Scottish National Opera, The Metropolitan Opera and the Welsh National Opera. The season also will include a concert performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s beloved “Aida.”

Opening the Detroit Opera season with “The Valkyries” made sense after its successful premiere in Los Angeles in July, says Sharon, who became Detroit Opera artistic director in 2020; this marks his second full season with the company.

“It’s one of the most exciting and beloved acts in opera history,” Sharon says of “The Valkyries.” “The music encapsulates some of the best of what opera has to offer. Just Act III as a standalone piece makes for a real exciting kick off to the season. You’ve heard this music before. It’s an introduction to what makes Wagner rich and exciting.”

The production, he says, also was fresh in everyone’s mind after the premiere in Los Angeles. “It’s a fresh project so we thought why don’t we just bring it straight to Detroit. It makes sense for all those reasons,” he says.

Exploring the use of technology did not come out of nowhere. Sharon is always looking to create something special in response to “our moment in time … doing classical works in new ways.” In his short tenure in Detroit, he has become known for his vision and leadership, helping transform the Detroit Opera Company as part of the new center for progressive opera. An apt example was Sharon’s staging of “Twilight: Gods” in the Detroit Opera parking garage during the pandemic.

Sharon says the use of technology is “very Wagnerian.” “It’s so central to how Wagner thought about music and theater … to incorporate the latest technology into stagecraft,” he says, noting the composer invented a special instrument -- the Wagner tuba, a four-valve brass instrument -- to capture the sound he was looking for. He also designed a purpose-built theater to accommodate the world he envisioned for his “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” also known as the Ring cycle.

“He was that specific. He was that kind of a thinker. He was a mad scientist for opera,” Sharon says.

The real-time computer graphics and animation used in “The Valkyries” was created by Jason Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras of PXT Studio. Sharon worked with the pair to storyboard the piece, using VR headsets to place virtual cameras throughout the digital landscape as if he were a film director working on location. The virtual cameras work in conjunction with five robotic cameras to capture the performers from a variety of angles onstage in front of a 16-foot green screen.

As the performance unfolds on stage, the feed from the physical and virtual cameras are synthesized, with real-time video effects used to keep color grading consistent and to help the performers blend into the virtual environment. The result is a live film that exists with the onstage performance. Audiences are free to watch the action on-stage and on projections screens simultaneously.

“It’s one of those things where you have to be here,” Sharon says, adding the use of digital technology draws audiences deeper into Wagner’s proto-cinematic vision than ever before. “It’s hard to describe … it’s almost two performances, live performances and a digital world. The audience gets to look at both at the same time. It shows what is possible -- a kind of state of the art form … digital opens up a whole new realm. It’s an exploration between live and digital. There’s no message here.”

The reaction from the Los Angeles audience, he says, was euphoric. “No one knew what to expect … they were plunged into this new world and it was overwhelming and exciting for them,” he says, pointing out, however, that Detroit audiences may be more prepared for the performance because of media attention.

Along with Goerke, the production stars Alan Held as Wotan; Wendy Bryn Harmer (Sieglinde); Angel Azzarra (Gerhilde); Ann Toomey (Ortlinde), a Detroit native; Tamara Mumford (Waltraute); GeDeane Graham (Schwertleite); Jessica Faselt (Helmwige); Leah Dexter (Siegrune); Maya Lahyani (Grimgerde) and Krysty Swann (Rossweise). Sir Andrew Davis, formerly music director and principal conductor of the Lyric Opera of Chicago is conducting, marking his Detroit debut.

Detroit Opera’s 2022-23 dance series will feature five dance experiences, including Alonzo King LINES Ballet, a reimagining of “The Nutcracker” by Mark Morris Dance Group’s The Hard Nut, “Swan Lake” by Ballet Preljocaj, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a rare U.S. performance from the State Ballet of Georgia.

‘The Valkyries’

7:30 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Detroit Opera House

1526 Broadway St., Detroit

(313) 237-7464


Tickets: Starting at $29