“The future of warfare is getting more and more virtual.”
This chilling declaration of our times was said by a former member of the Pakistan Air Force. The use of UAVs—Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or “drones”—is creating a world where people can be killed from a great distance away, at the click of a button. This seems to reflect a videogame scenario instead of something in real life, but it’s clear that ethics and morality have become blurred concepts as our humanity is challenged by an increasingly technological landscape.
These are some of the themes and anxieties in Matthew Sleeth’s newest project fusing technology and art, A Drone Opera. Playing in the cavernous performance space in the Meat Market Arts House, Sleeth, his operatic trio and his buzzing drones have created a bizarre visual and aural feast for their audience, pushing the boundaries of how we think about performance art—especially opera.
It’s worth mentioning that the crew and ushers at the Arts House did a fantastic job of building anticipation before the opera began. Clustered in the gaping maw of the venue’s entrance, we were instructed to switch off our phones so they don’t interfere with the technology. We moved as a group through the first door and bunched ourselves together in a small, brick room. In front of us was a black curtain. High pitched, electronic whines and a swelling operatic song could be heard from behind the curtain. I felt like I was about to be strapped in for some new, experimental theme park ride. Urged to follow our usher closely, we were led through the curtain to get our first look at the big performance space. A stretch of concrete, shrouded in darkness, was dotted with floor lights. At the back of the room the singers, Judith Dodsworth, Hamish Gould and Paul Hughes, stood together and belting out a tune that suggested we were about to enter a strange, dangerous world. Reinforcing the feeling I was about to go on a ride, we were split into two groups in small audience stands, protected by mesh netting: The “Drone Safety Zone”.
What followed was a piece of innovative theatre making bold attempts to transport its viewers to a dystopian fantasy. One of the massive highlights of the show was the interplay between the drones and Robin Fox’s psychedelic lasers and Bosco Shaw’s lighting design. Bright greens, reds and blues shot out across the stage like laser targets on rifles. They created solid roofs and floors through which the singers cast their shadows like long, black pillars. Some of the imagery suggested we were in a warzone. During the show’s climax, when the fragmented lasers exploded in contorted shapes while bursts of electronic screeches from Philip Samartzis’s sound design emphasized the drama. But the real visual joy came when smoke bled out onto the stage, mixing lighting and curdling clouds of smoke, evoking a monumental dust storm. One unforgettable special effect had the red laser creating a tunnel while smoke billowed around its edges, as though we were looking straight into the eye of a storm.
These apocalyptic visuals were set to a very haunting—if at times overburdening—operatic score from Dodsworth, Gould and Hughes, composed by Susan Frykberg. The lyrics were difficult to hear, but the opera’s themes were evoked through lines like “new target approaching” and the line beginning the opera, “Joy, the sky is open”, suggesting we had opened the sky up to drones which would be with us for the rest of our lives. Unfortunately, such stilted dialogue and cold imagery left little room for poignancy or, to the show’s detriment, humanity. This lack was briefly countered when Judith Dodsworth delivered an ethereal soprano solo. Her voice is truly a marvel in its range and emotional scope. During her song she came right up the netting separating us from the performance, her face appearing tormented and anxious. This near-contact added much needed tenderness and character to a pretty sterile setting.
But what about the drones themselves? This is a drone opera, after all. Unfortunately this was where Sleeth’s ambitious project flew a little too close to the sun, to borrow a phrase from the myth of Icarus, Sleeth’s inspiration. The drones were in almost every scene and were central to the opera’s vague narrative, but once you got past the technically impressive aspect, they felt like little more than novelty, and probably should have remained more in the background as a part of the setting, instead of being central players.
With spidery legs jutting out from their bases and a sleek black design, always emitting a harsh whine, they resembled insects. There were the smaller drones who playfully looped and swung around each other, and a mother ship-type which the drones encircled towards the end of the play, before the mother ship emitted a rain of confetti from its base. However, well-choreographed moments with the drones like this were few and far. For the most part they hovered and sluggishly drifted back and forth. After a while the audience stopped craning their necks to follow the drones overhead, and the feeling of the air blasting down on us when they hovered above became quickly tiresome. Perhaps some stronger choreography, more rehearsals and fewer minutes of the drones dragging themselves around the stage would have created a tighter, clearer narrative.
For all its storytelling flaws, Sleeth’s A Drone Opera was immensely entertaining because it was so bizarre and innovative. It was best enjoyed as an aesthetic experience rather than a criticism on security and military measures in contemporary society. Ultimately the piece shows a bright future for other storytellers who wish to blend technology and art in their work. The world of warfare may be becoming more and more virtual, but this same message can be applied to art, and if we continue to see artists as creative as Sleeth and his crew, it might not be such a bleak future after all.