Why Google Glass Is Bad for Opera

The appeal of the world as seen through an opera singer\'s eyes, as relayed through Google Glass, is more puzzling.

Published: 10th October 2014 12:20 PM  |   Last Updated: 10th October 2014 12:20 PM   |  A+A-


Some fashions are so odd you wonder what ever could have inspired them. Take the present fad for viewing classical and operatic performances from the vantage point of a tiny camera, worn on the head of one of the participants.

This has been made possible by that new gizmo everyone's talking about, called Google Glass. This is a miniaturised iPhone and PC built into the frame of a pair of glasses. The owner views a tiny, see-through TV screen in one corner of his/her vision, and gives instructions to the device by a mixture of touching the frame, and muttering sotto voce instructions such as "OK Glass, take a picture."

Google Glass carries numerous apps that allow it to do no end of wonderful and useful things. It can guide users through the streets, offer instant translation of menus, take videos, and check delays on the Birmingham to Manchester line. And it can act as a head-strapped camera, broadcasting to the whole world live, real-time images of whatever actions you're doing, as you do them.

There are many practical applications of this particular function, such as teaching skills in things like surgery or cookery. It can also allow parents to keep an eye on their children, by hooking their Google Glasses up to the parents' laptops or iPhones (one thief of a Google Glass forgot this real-time broadcasting function, which allowed the police to track him down in no time).

What puzzles me is the appeal of Google Glass as a transmitter of live performance, and this isn't because I can't see the pleasure of sharing an unusual experience. Like everyone else, I've thrilled to the sight of the world from 30,000 feet as seen through a camera strapped to a skydiver's helmet, or the even scarier sight of the Tarmac racing by at 150 miles per hour, from a camera attached to a Formula 1 car.

These situations are inherently dangerous and spectacular, and it's nice to be able to share them without stirring from our armchairs. The appeal of the world as seen through an opera singer's eyes, as relayed through Google Glass, is more puzzling. There's no white-knuckle ride to thrill to, and the images are often worse than the worst home-movie.

My favourite, because it captures the comic banality of the new genre of classical Google Glass movies so well, is the performance of Rhapsody in Blue given by the Peninsula Symphony on YouTube.

The conductor follows the solo pianist on stage, so we see the back of the pianist's head for a few seconds and hear the applause. But then the conductor has to turn to the audience and bow, at which point the pianist vanishes. When the conductor turns round to the orchestra the pianist magically reappears. Then, bizarrely, the conductor's hands appear at the edge of the screen. The rising squawk of the opening clarinet melody rings out, but we can't see where it comes from.

It's hardly a satisfying artistic experience. Another example shows violinist Daniel Hope's view of his own fingers whizzing up and down the violin's fingerboard, as he plays Baroque concertos at the Bristol Proms. Further evidence of this peculiarity comes from a production of Turandot at Caligari opera in Sardinia. Here a number of the cast seem to be wearing Google Glass, to judge by a scrap of the resulting video now on YouTube. And very silly they look too.

What's puzzling is that seeing a musical or operatic performance from only one performer's point of view destroys the experience. It confuses ordinary reality with the artificial reality that art creates. To immerse yourself in an opera like Turandot, you have to see it whole, otherwise there's no chance of "suspending disbelief". If you see it though the eyes of one participant, the performance is revealed for what it actually is: a bunch of people in fancy dress shouting in a foreign language. It's no longer a performance, more a documentary about "what it's really like to be in an opera/Baroque concerto".

This suggests that these Google Glass videos are a form of reality TV. They take the process of democratising classical music and opera and push it one stage further. In Maestro at the Opera we saw amateurs, or rather celebs, being prepared to become conductors. But at the end what we were offered was the total spectacle, seen from the audience's point of view. The integrity of the performance was preserved, more or less.

That never happens with these Google Glass videos. Instead we see the performance through just one performer's eyes, and naturally we identify with it. We become that violinist or the singer, without moving from our chairs. It really is performance reconceived for the "me" generation, which may be why, despite their lamentable quality, these Google Glass "classical" videos seem to be catching on.


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