3D Goes to the Opera

Sunken Garden is an "occult-mystery film-opera" that uses 3D technology to enrich the audience experience. Created by Dutch composer-director Michel van der Aa and Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell, the opera tells the story of the disappearance of a software engineer and a young socialite, interweaving it with a fantasy sub-tale of a walled garden existing between life and death, physical and virtual.


The production seamlessly integrates live action with video projections to create a 'film-noir' ambience in which real singers interact with 3D filmed actors and computer generated special effects. Wearing Polaroid Premium 3D glasses audiences often find the illusion so compelling as to be unsure which characters are projections and which real people.


Michel Van der Aa, who has built a reputation from mixing film and live action, says of the technological element of Sunken Garden:

It’s not just eye-candy ... The opera is about someone trying to find missing people. He finds them in a mystical garden, a place between life and death, between day and night. This is where the 3D comes in. It’s not a stunt. It’s a functional tool for storytelling.


The garden of the title represents the portal between the two worlds, its central feature a vertical pond:

A woman leaps from a pond and a thousand raindrops fall on stage. She and her fellow singers, a man and a woman, look at the slow-moving spray suspended round them. The droplets drift towards the audience. Before they reach us, though, a voice stops the action. We take off our 3D glasses and see the singers, perfectly dry, chatting with one another. The droplets are now merely blurry dots projected on to a screen, firmly back in their 2D box.

Though operatic performances have previously been broadcast in 3D, this is the first opera to fully integrate 3D technology into the production itself. Said critic Paul Kilbey:

What’s really remarkable about ... is the way it all comes together ... It’s a trippy experience, but on occasion a breathtaking one, and the technological aspects have been very firmly welded into the dramatic concept, ensuring that claims of gimmickry are easy to refute.

Sunken Garden is a five-way co-production between English National Opera, Toronto Luminato Festival, Opera de Lyon, Holland Festival and the Barbican Centre London, where it is currently showing.