Luminaria, San Antonio’s annual contemporary arts festival, doesn't take place until November, but the city's artists and performers are already hard at work preparing their works, including one project its creator hopes will be a totally absorbing experience for each listener at the festival.
San Antonio composer Nathan Felix is crafting what he has tentatively titled Headphone Opera. He describes it as a one-person, player-immersive experience with live audio projected through headphones, and taking place within the corridors of a large space “where the line between performers and audience is intentionally blurred.”
Or, as Felix puts it another way, think of it as a silent rave.
“At Luminaria, each visitor will be given a set of headphones as they walk into a large space with multiple rooms,” Felix explains. “Through the headphones they can hear music that is actually being performed live and, in some cases, they'll come across the musicians and singers in action. They can choose to follow the singers, the actors, or they can simply explore and create their own experience.”
Felix says the goal is to keep the performance around 40 minutes and to repeat it a few times during Luminaria.
“It'll be done in one major act with multiple storylines occurring simultaneously,” he says. “The hope is that after the performance, people can share their different experiences and then decide to return and follow a different storyline.”
Why bring opera to Luminaria? Felix says the idea came to him after he and three other San Antonio creatives were awarded the 2018 Tobin Prize for Artistic Excellence in February which includes a $15,000 grant.
Over the past year, Felix has been experimenting at performances with his choir, breaking up the group and having different songs performed simultaneously in different areas within a space.“This gives a unique experience for each listener, which is the goal, but I began to think about how I could tie everything together,” he says.“With headphones I can spread out my performers and while each visitor will get a different visual experience — everything will be united audibly.”
Felix is still developing the overall narrative for his compact opera, doing research, writing music for it, and sketching moods and theme music. The current Tricentennial celebration of San Antonio’s founding serves as partial inspiration for Felix’s opera, with local history weaved into the work.
“It was actually the Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo that inspired most of my recent work in San Antonio and abroad,” Felix adds. “That ending scene where Bellini's ‘I Puritani’ is being performed in the Amazon jungle really resonated with me. I realized it's not just about composing new music or being a virtuoso, but about bringing unique experiences to audiences, like a headphone opera, or the opera I did on the VIA buses last year, etc.”
Felix says that like with Fitzcarraldo, he wants to do things that have rarely been achieved in San Antonio, if ever.
This being Felix’s first opera, he felt like he to show something for his preparations so far. So, he decided to go into the studio and record a stripped down motif to demonstrate one of the styles that will be showcased in the opera.
“I decided to record and release "Adagietto" to give an idea of some of the musical sounds one will encounter,” he adds. "Adagietto" is sung in Italian, but the opera will also have parts sung in English and Spanish as well. He recently premiered a video of a performance of his composition, and the song is also now available on Spotify and iTunes.
Felix said the headphone opera and Luminaria will be a prime opportunity to expose locals and Texans alike to his music and to a flexible, contemporary variation of a music art form that was born more than 400 years ago. “These days, opera can mean different things to different people and some people may not even know what to think,” he adds.