‘The Hubble Cantata’ Is a VR-Tinged Operatic Tour of Outer Space


The annual BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn series of outdoor shows at Prospect Park doesn’t usually include opera, and it’s not usually associated with science, either. But on August 6, loungers on the grassy bandshell knoll will get both at The Hubble Cantata, a new performance combining an orchestra, a hundred-member choir, and two Metropolitan Opera star singers with astrophysics, virtual reality, and 3-D sound.

The piece began four years ago. Maine music foundation Bay Chamber Concerts commissioned composer Paola Prestini to write a piece about the Hubble, with scientific input from the telescope’s lead astrophysicist, Mario Livio. Prestini and librettist Royce Vavrek created a story where a human couple’s relationship is mirrored in the life cycle of a star, from birth in a nebula to death in a supernova. “It becomes this piece about searching, and the unknown, and trying to find somebody in this infinite vastness,” says Vavrek. The story ends when the woman floats into the sky to join the stars.

The artists are intentionally holding off on showing Hubble imagery until the end of the show.

This theme of loss was inspired by the impending end of the Hubble’s era: The telescope has been in operation since 1990, providing breathtaking photos of the far reaches of space, but talks are under way to decommission it over the next few years. It successor, the James Webb Telescope, is slated to launch in 2018, with much more advanced contemporary technology. Prestini wrote the music for the piece based on this story. “Royce’s words, and the way that they married the scientific language, became a roadmap,” she says. “We learned that the choir represented the cosmos. Then the electronics in the music, which I designed with [the engineering firm] Arup, were infused with Mario Livio’s actual voice.” Prestini and Vavrek’s collaboration resulted in a twenty-minute piece that’s been performed several times, most recently with the L.A. Philharmonic.

The performance at Celebrate Brooklyn marks the premiere of an expanded, hour-long composition and a completely new companion film directed by Eliza McNitt, who has created films for scientific organizations like the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. For most of the cantata, subtly animated stills shot by Sasha Arutyunova and directed by McNitt will be projected on a screen behind Jessica Rivera and Nathan Gunn, the Met Opera singers portraying the couple. But the best part is the very end, when the audience turns on a phone app and slips on Google Cardboard VR headsets to experience Fistful of Stars, a five-minute virtual reality trip into the heavens.

“The first 45 minutes is this fun, poetic interpolation of the scientific nuggets that Mario gave us, but then the VR at the end, which is also narrated by Mario, is much more this real, beautiful scientific exploration of the imagery,” says Prestini. The artists are intentionally holding off on showing Hubble imagery until the end of the show. “At the end, you finally see it, and you see it in VR,” she says. “It’s like all this that you’ve been imagining then explodes into a new world.”

The virtual reality film propels viewers through a photorealistic simulation of the Hubble Telescope and out the other side, where they’ll witness the life cycle of a star. For this portion of the visuals McNitt enlisted Endless Collective, a small VR company of expert animators who have worked on films including Gravity. It’s more than worth the heavy logistics required to pull it off: As approximately six thousand guests ender the bandshell, each will get a free Google Cardboard, a foldable VR headset allowing anyone to turn their phone into a virtual reality device. Guests are strongly encouraged to download the app in advance (the iOS version is available now, with Android arriving shortly), although beefed-up on-site Wi-Fi should help out those who didn’t get the memo.

Funding for this sprawling project came from many sources, including NEA grants and personal donations; Time Warner contributed the headsets. National Sawdust is also running a Kickstarter to fund the VR segment of the production, with a fundraising goal of $35,000. “The project will happen even if we don’t raise that money,” Prestini says, “but it’s been a real challenge to raise the funds.”

After the Brooklyn show, the cantata will be recorded at National Sawdust and released on Prestini’s VIA Records label. But the composer also hopes to re-create the Brooklyn show in other large outdoor spaces and museums around the world, which is why she hopes the Kickstarter will reach its funding goal (it is currently at about 25 percent). She’s already in talks with the Sydney Opera House and others about future performances. “I’d love to bring it to places and have it be this free, wonderful experience that is both educational and artistic, a really sensorial, rich, scientific experience.”

The Hubble Cantata premieres August 6. Watch a preview of the event below.