New Frost Made Works Expand Creative Uses for Technology

"Stained Glass" and "Tales of Kafka," new works created at the Frost School of Music, explored innovative uses of new technology, such as augmented reality and video streaming, to expand the artistic possibilities of live performance.

In “Stained Glass,” the chamber opera which premiered at the Knight Center for Innovation on March 26, flames leapt up at the audience’s feet. A shimmering snowfall filled the air as a singer wondered about her future. Sometimes her words floated in the air, as if her thoughts had leapt out of her head. Vivid imagery of endless fields or towering books covered the walls, enveloping the singers and musicians in an eerily shifting world. 

This theatrical magic was created at the Frost School of Music and made possible by the Center’s Thomas D. Hormel Music Innovation Stage. This high-tech multimedia space is a laboratory for experimenting with how new technology can enrich and expand the possibilities of live performance.

Composed by Shawn Crouch, associate professor of practice, music theory and composition at the Frost School of Music, and produced and directed by Jeffrey Buchman, associate professor and stage director for opera, “Stained Glass” was not only the first production to fully utilize the Hormel’s unique capabilities—it was conceived for them. 

“The space was part of the creative process,” says Buchman, who has directed a range of innovative opera and multimedia projects at the Frost School and elsewhere. “Stained Glass” would have been a different piece in any other space. Hormel allowed it to be what it was going to be.” 

“This is so new that nobody’s doing it right now,” says Crouch, whose music has been commissioned and performed by many leading contemporary ensembles and choirs. “The technology is moving so fast that in six months or a year, there will be so many new blended reality possibilities. But we’re paving the way.”

“Stained Glass” tells the story of Mamah Borthwick, the lover of Frank Lloyd Wright, the famed godfather of modern American architecture, in the early 1900’s. Borthwick, who left her husband and two young children to be with Wright, yearned for an intellectual and creative life beyond being a wife and mother. Excoriated in the press as amoral and unfeeling, Borthwick was brutally murdered at Taliesin, the visionary home Wright designed for them, in 1914. In an episode out of a horror film, an angry servant sets Taliesin on fire, then takes an axe to Borthwick, her visiting children, and several others as they fled.

Though Crouch and Buchman came up with the idea of telling Borthwick’s story, they wanted a woman to write it. They asked friend and Frost alumnus Dana Kaufman, D.M.A. ’18, an innovative composer-librettist based in Los Angeles who’s created works for venues and festivals across the United States and internationally. 

Kaufman focused on the wrenching choices Mamah was forced to make as she sought a life forbidden to women at that time. The opera is mostly a musical monologue, with Mamah (Frost Opera Theater’s Hannah Penzner) singing her longings and frustrations. She sometimes interacts with Julia Woodring, as Mamah’s reproving sister Lizzie, as well as the voice of Ellen Key, a Swedish philosopher and feminist (before the word was invented) who inspires, then rejects Mamah. Wright, played by Cees Postema, is a silent, mostly aloof presence. At the end, Mamah, though dead, is freed from the restrictions forced on her in life.

“It turned into an opera about flawed people living in a flawed world, and the choices they make when they themselves are given very few,” says Kaufman. “What it means to find freedom in the home, what it means to be trapped in the home. The walls that people build for us, and the walls that we build for ourselves.”

Instead of mimicking a traditional proscenium stage by staging the piece against a flat wall, Buchman placed several low stage platforms, with the Frost Chamber Ensemble behind them, in front of a corner where two walls meet; then streamed video on both walls, so that the performers were enfolded in imagery. (Cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, assistant professor of chamber music and innovation and the Ensemble’s director, coached the group; while Crouch conducted the performance.)

Twenty-four people in the sold out, 125-person audience got to watch with AR (augmented reality) goggles, which layered three-dimensional imagery - flames springing up as Taliesin burns; a snowstorm as Mamah sings longingly about her future; splintered glass as her world is destroyed – onto the live action. The visual elements expand and bring the ideas in the story to life in a new way.

“The intention was to be as immersive as possible,” says Buchman, who created the imagery with a mix of photos, video, and original graphics. “I like adding as many perspectives as possible.”

He and his collaborators are still figuring out what’s possible. Limits on data capacity (even in Hormel) and how many AR goggles could function simultaneously in the multiplayer space limited the number to 24. Half were older, first-generation Magic Leap goggles; half were newer Quest 3 goggles; with a separate operator for each system, timing the projections to mesh with the live action.

Some AR images, like the flames or snow, were magically world-expanding. During the performance, some people shared the goggles, passing them back and forth. Others put them aside; though the goggles added three-dimensional imagery, they also flattened and blurred the performers’ faces. 

In a pre-show talk, Buchman asked for the audience’s patience. “We are experimenting with all the creativity we have,” he told them. “We are working to wrap our heads around this technology and getting people who know about technology to think more creatively.”

The evening also included Charles Norman Mason’s “Tales of Kafka (I & II),” musical multimedia vignettes based on short stories by the pioneering 19th century author of “Metamorphosis.” Mason, chair of the department of theory and composition, also created the videos streaming around different configurations of musicians: swelling ocean waves for “Silence of the Sirens,” based on “The Odyssey,” or close-ups of rustling undergrowth for “The Burrow,” about an anxious animal. The music and imagery compellingly reinforced each other. Mason created the AR portion of “Tales,” which allowed audience members to scan a QR code in the program with their phones and then watch images on their small screens while viewing the live performance.  

Mason, a fan of Kafka and Magical Realism, says the possibilities of augmented reality and the Hormel Stage presented an exciting way to bring his musical mission of expanding people’s understanding to the performance aspect of his work – particularly with the surrealism so integral to Kafka. “It is important to me that with my compositions I bring a new way of looking at the world,” Mason says. “This time, I also wanted to focus on the concert experience. The Hormel Innovation Stage was just about to be completed when I began this project, and it seemed like it could be the perfect space for my new ideas.”

Mason also immersed himself in new technology, learning ten new software programs, and creating 3-D objects by himself. He plans to use a recent University of Miami Provost Research Grant on a new project that will incorporate a fully immersive augmented reality experience. 

“Stained Glass” got an XR Faculty Award from the Office of the Provost and funding from the Mac Morris Fund for Innovation in Opera. A team from the University of Miami’s Virtual Experiences Simulation Lab (VESL), part of the School of Communications, also worked on the project.

Buchman, who’s done two previous augmented reality projects at the Frost School, says they’re still learning what works. “It’s been a long, arduous process,” he says. “We spent a lot of time figuring out challenges. There are a lot of hurdles it’s good we discovered.”

But that’s what the Hormel Stage and projects like “Stained Glass” are for. “As labor intensive as this has been, what a playground this is!” says Buchman.

Crouch imagines the creative experiments at the Hormel Space someday inspiring companies who make extended reality software or hardware to add new capabilities for artists. Or that small opera companies will someday stage lavish productions using augmented reality, rather than building expensive traditional sets. “This,” Crouch says, “is a game changer for theater.”