Shawn Crouch and Jeffrey Buchman Craft a Groundbreaking New Opera Through the Lenses of Extended Reality [XR]

The place for innovation, learning, and pushing the boundaries of knowledge isn’t just happening in classrooms. Professors Shawn Crouch and Jeffrey Buchman's world-premiere production of a new opera, "Mamah Borthwick in the Bardo," using Extended Reality [XR], which combines real and virtual environments, will attest to that.

The University of Miami's UMVerse Initiative has developed a unique space that blends real and virtual environments reminiscent of scenes from Star Trek's Holodeck. Among the schools invited to explore this new technology is the Frost School of Music, offering the exciting opportunity to venture into a visionary domain using Extended Reality (XR). 

Last summer, after a FrostNews story was published about the latest album release from composer and conductor Shawn Crouch, associate professor of Professional Practice in the Department of Music Theory and Composition at the Frost School of Music, the UMVerse Initiave's team of students and faculty, which Professor Kim Grinfeder leads, took notice and approached Crouch. 

They asked him if he would like to do something with XR and music, and he swiftly replied, "Absolutely!" Crouch had heard about the program and their collaboration with other schools within the University of Miami, giving them a competitive edge in a rapidly evolving technological landscape. 

As Crouch pondered the idea, he became increasingly convinced that incorporating technology into theater productions could elevate performances and enhance the audience's experience. He envisioned a new opera being performed at the Knight Center for Music Innovation on the Frost School of Music campus by Lake Osceola.  

"Premiering this new opera with architecture and innovation at its core in the new Knight Center for Music Innovation, the latest addition at the Frost School of Music campus, will be the perfect setting for the inaugural year of the new hall," thought Crouch.  

With all that in mind, he contacted his Frost peer and acclaimed opera director Jeffrey Buchman, assistant professor and Stage director of the Frost Opera Theater. Just last week, Buchman received Frost's Provost Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, Music, and Creative space. So, he was Crouch's first choice, not only because he has successfully created numerous world-premiere operas using technology to direct this multi-faceted project, but more specifically, because of his experience in incorporating augmented reality technology into the live performance of classical music and opera. 



Together, they applied to and consequently received, the XR Faculty Award grant for $10,000 to craft a groundbreaking new opera using XR technology to tell their story. To complete their crew, Crouch commissioned Frost alum, DMA in Composition, Dana Kaufman, an acclaimed Los Angeles-based composer, to co-write the libretto with him. Recently, Kaufman received a substantial grant from the American Opera Project to develop a new opera inspired by astronaut Sally Ride.

"I am a composer of instrumental, vocal, and choral music with a particular interest in telling stories and crafting a narrative," said Crouch. He's drawn to texts that tell stories of the human condition—the effects of war, the struggle with loss, or the joy of understanding. He writes music that enhances that narrative, and you can see this reflected in four significant vocal works of his: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (2020), Visions and Ecstasies, A Mass (2013), Paradise (2006), and The Road from Hiroshima, a Requiem (2005).

Crouch and Buchman discussed various ideas for the opera and ultimately decided on creating a one-act production instead of a micro-opera. They envisioned it being performed in a black box theater, and thus, "Mamah Borthwick in the Bardo" was born. 

The opera explores the relationship between Mamah Borthwick and famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright as told through Mamah's point of view. "In a series of recollections and conversations with herself from the bardo, the opera opens with Mamah, the recently murdered romantic partner of Frank Lloyd Wright," explained Buchman. 

"Alone on stage, singing from the afterlife, she is lost in thought and confused about what has happened and where she is. Her last memory is of fire, her and her children's death in their home in Taliesin. She pieces moments together, working backward in time, starting with her death, moving through her relationship with Wright (both intellectually and physically), and to the couple's earliest moments together. Mamah is both reflecting on moments in her life and grappling with the choices she made through a series of dialogues between her living, younger self and her older spiritual self in the bardo."  

One of the great benefits of incorporating this technology into musical theater productions is the ability to seamlessly merge the live performance with the augmented reality seen through the XR glasses. This creates an immersive experience for the audience and is a significant advancement in the industry.

Crouch explained that with the help of technology, a small opera department could produce an opera production without worrying about the high costs of creating complete sets. They can simply use Google Glasses to enhance the storytelling. This innovation has a promising future, and they are at the forefront of it. 

While Buchman agrees, he is taking a more cautious approach by allowing Crouch and Kaufman to conduct their preliminary research and determine the ultimate direction of the narrative. 

"I want to be careful that we don't allow technology to get ahead of the storytelling," said Buchman. "Rather than us sitting down and saying, 'Hey, wouldn't it be cool if we do this with augmented reality?' The better path we all agreed on is, 'Let's figure out exactly what the story is we're telling and then think about what elements of that are most powerfully told through augmented reality.' And that's when my creativity will kick in in high gear."