Meeting Points: Scary Beauty and The End: Vocaloid Opera (OzAsia, Adelaide)

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The program for OzAsia 2017, compiled by intrepid artistic director, Joseph Mitchell, will be remembered for a number of events: Singapore theatre company, Wild Rice’s assured and engaging play, Hotel, stylishly directed by Ivan Heng and Glen Goei; the captivating, absurdist realism of Kuro Tanino’s The Dark Inn; and, especially – the futuristic musical experiments of Japanese composer, Keiichiro Shibuya.

First came Scary Beauty, a triptych of prose works set to music by Shibuya performing on piano with the excellent ten piece Australian Art Orchestra, under the direction of trumpeter Peter Knight. The three texts are from Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq, The Decay of the Angel by Yukio Mishima and an excerpt from The Third Mind, a cut-up by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin.

The spectacle of an android surrounded by human musicians is … well, alien – and yet, somehow, natural.

The arrangements for horns, strings, percussion, drum and vocal are excellent, but our attention is irresistibly drawn to the central performer – Skeleton. She is an android of human height, dressed in a flowing maroon smock and high-laced Doc Martins. Her face, with dark darting eyes, is a porcelain-like mask with Japanese features. She has white, dainty hands which she moves, with sometimes startling delicacy, in time with her strangely plaintive vocal.

“So you will be the one/ My real presence /I will be in the joy/Of your non-fictional skin”, she sings from Houellebecq. From Mishima’s tragic paradox of the decaying angel she sings : “I have put together a delicate machine for feeling how it would be if I were to feel like a human being.” Skeleton then turns Burroughs’ staccato chopped prose – “voice eyes …voice of cone eye hatch dim blots… age agent dim vest of …terminal electric voice of C “ – into a frantic scat delivery, urgent and agitated like the music enveloping it.

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The spectacle of an android surrounded by human musicians is … well, alien – and yet, somehow, natural. The cameras projecting Skeleton from various angles remind us that she is bundled circuitry – the mask does not conceal the mechanics of her head and, the open panel in her gown confirms that she is not flesh.

Devised and operated by Hiroshi Ishiguro, Kohei Ogawa and Takashi Ikegawa, the unromantically named Skeleton is not a gimmicky jukebox. She has a voice box, her performances are based on human voice data and the result is a fascinating mix of human programming, autonomous action and random selection. Here is the AI version of Whitman’s I Sing the Body Electric. And it is unexpectedly, unforgettably poignant. This is beauty, but it is not scary.

Meeting Points: Scary Beauty, Keiichiro Shibuya, Australian Art Orchestra and Skeleton was at the Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, October 1.

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The End: Vocaloid Opera is something else again. Shibuya has formed a collaboration with Japanese virtual pop sensation, Hatsune Miku (main picture above). Her name translates as “voice of the future” and she is a humanoid entity voiced by a singing synthesiser app. This program, developed by Crypton Future Media, samples the actual voice of actress Saki Fujita and uses the Yamaha licensed Vocaloid technology. Miku first appeared in 2007 as a program for musicians, but has extended into pop entertainment as a recording star in her own right. It has been estimated that she has generated as many as 100,000 songs.

Shibuya describes The End as an opera without a human singer or an orchestra.

Miku has the anime avatar of a 16 year old girl, with distinctive turquoise hair tied in two long bunches. Her outfits are keenly imitated by fans and, adding another layer of infamy to Miku’s celebrity, the designs for The End are from Louis Vuitton. On the second night of Shibuya’s opera in Adelaide, fans gathered in the foyer taking selfies with the larger than “life” model of Miku, many of them wearing wigs and dyed hair in tribute to their other-worldly idol.

Shibuya describes The End as an opera without a human singer or an orchestra. In addition, he has taken this lighter-than-air pop creation who sings songs about teenage romance and adolescent self-preoccupation and casts her into a metaphysical contemplation of her own being. Miku, who is a figment of electronics, is made to speculate about life – and more to the point, the concept and experience of death.

The composer has used the most unlikely heroine to investigate and express an experience which is profoundly personal to him – the death, by suicide, of his wife and muse, Maria. Miku, with her ditzy curiosity, begins to imagine herself as a living breathing person. But she resists also. “Dying was disappearing for other people. But not for me. Dying was the furthest thing from my mind.”

Beginning with an overture of brisk but lyrical Michael Nyman-esque strings, the energy of the opera begins to build. The fast edit images dart and splash with washes of bright colour and the wispy, whispery voice of Miku chants and coos until a curtain lifts on a heavily lit stage with three huge screens and a tent-like structure from which images, sound and light are generated. Huge projections swoop into our faces, overwhelming on the gauze front screen and suspended in 3D like limbo in the stage area as well.

Miku is larger than life, her tresses flowing like long, languid sea grass. And she has some kind of spirit guide, a corpulent rabbit with huge eyes and robotic voice. The effect is immersive. The music building with long, extended synth chords as Miku begins – “open the door/I came to say/something very important” and so begins a duet with her mirror self, asking questions of ultimate meaning.

It verges on preposterous that Descartes has become a teenage pop chick, and that questions of death, grief and loss can be mediated through the bird brain of a vocaloid. But Shibuya has imbued the work with a tenderness, and an innocence, which in the final stages of the opera, signals a recognition – with its insistent melodic repetitions and the composer’s simple, anguished SMS libretto – that, like Orpheus separated from Eurydice, his beloved is lost for all time. That it truly is The End, my friend. And this turquoise-haired poppet, Miku, has been the unlikely, but unaccountably eloquent, narrator of an elegy to irretrievable love.

The End: Vocaloid Opera, Keiichiro Shibuya and Hatsune Miku was at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, October 4.

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