Arts & Design

The new surround sound: Symphonies, operas, and orchestras in VR

Virtual reality is redefining how audiences experience classical music, with potential to attract larger audiences and build deeper connections with patrons.

By Garage Staff — May 6, 2021

After more than a year of shutdown, London’s Royal Opera House reopens its doors May 20 with Current, Rising, a new Shakespeare-inspired production that combines a poignant libretto with virtual reality (VR). For each 15-minute performance, an audience of four will enter a specially designed set on the Linbury Theatre stage, where they’ll each don wireless VR headsets. From there, they travel through continually materializing and dissolving landscapes based on the final act of The Tempest. With dusk crescendoing into dawn, they’ll encounter themes of isolation and togetherness through all their senses as a gentle wind blows on their faces while they drift apart at sea, and when the earth rumbles through the city emerging below their feet.  

It’s like nothing the 75-year-old opera company has ever staged before.

“I was really interested in creating a project that allowed the audience to step into an opera not as a tourist, but embedded in the operatic experience,” says Annette Mees, who joined the Royal Opera House in 2018 to launch Audience Labs, a division for experimental digital performances. She initiated Current, Rising in 2019 with Figment, a digital production company that also specializes in designing virtual roller coasters, then secured funding from StoryFutures, the UK government program that invests in immersive digital storytelling. As a result, Mees expects the multimedia, multisensory experience to attract a diverse audience. 

A musician playing the cello in the orchestra show, Symphony, by the la Caixa foundation.

la Caixa Foundation

Operas and symphonies around the world are embracing virtual reality as a medium, and new technology is taking viewers out of the concert hall on more elaborate audio-visual journeys.

“There will be people doing VR for the first time who are there because they’re excited about new forms of opera,” she says, as well as “people who know VR very well, but maybe don’t know opera.” 

Current, Rising joins a growing number of operas and symphonies around the world embracing virtual reality as a medium, a response to VR’s growth in popularity. According to a 2020 study by Statista, consumers worldwide own 26 million VR headsets, with about 6 million new units expected to be sold in 2021. By 2025, the number of new units a year is expected to grow to 43.5 million. Audience Labs and StoryFutures, along with other cultural institutions in Spain, the United States, and beyond, seek to get ahead of this trend by exploring how VR can transform the stage, attract larger audiences, and build deeper connections with existing audiences.

“It’s really about exploring how we make great art on these new stages that technology offers,” Mees says.

Breaking barriers to access 

For the Royal Opera House, one major perk of virtual technology is its mobility. “It breaks open that traditional idea of the stage as the place where the work gets encountered,” Mees says. With that mobility comes the potential for bringing classical music to audiences unable to travel to the opera because of cost, distance, or the pandemic that has kept most people at home for months on end.

A socially distanced audience wearing HP Reverb virtual reality headsets to experience the orchestra show, Symphony, by the la Caixa Foundation.

"la Caixa" Foundation

In La Caixa Foundation's "Symphony," the audience enjoy Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as a state-of-the-art immersive experience made possible by HP's VR headsets.

“We went to virtual 360 because the pandemic stopped in-person concerts,” says Sylvia Rubin, president of New Jersey’s Adelphi Orchestra. With normal concert going suspended for the last year, the symphony forged ahead, streaming performances like its March Baroque Festival in 360-degree video — and even selling VR headsets online. Adelphi’s next 360-degree livestream is Saint-Saëns at 100, slated for May 15. 

In Barcelona last September, CaixaBank’s nonprofit cultural foundation La Caixa launched Symphony, a free virtual concert. Slated to travel to nearly 100 towns and cities across Spain and Portugal over the next 10 years, Symphony deploys pairs of room-sized mobile units to public squares. Inside, wearing HP Reverb G2 VR headsets, visitors find themselves onstage at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, seated with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra as famed Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel leads them through the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. From there, viewers take a surreal ride through the galaxy to the workshop of a luthier, or maker of stringed instruments, where they fly through the inside of a violin and the various pipes of a trumpet. 


RELATED: See how live theater comes to life in unexpected ways on the virtual stage.


A longtime advocate of making classical music more accessible, Dudamel worked closely with La Caixa to bring Symphony to life. He says the project is an embodiment of music’s ability to transcend differences and promote social integration, “offering thousands of people access to symphonic music, and — I hope — creating a greater appreciation for this art form.”

Elevating technology to new heights

In 2015, when Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic released the VR concert VAN Beethoven, it was limited to 360-degree views from an orchestra member’s seat, or from behind the conductor’s lectern. The format was adopted by symphony orchestras from Toronto to Adelaide, Australia, in the following years, but now, beyond merely presenting concert footage or trying to compete with the in-person experience, concert halls are exploring technology to provide a different experience altogether.

“It’s sort of a hybrid model between the future and the past, and that reach across time feels really exciting and fruitful.”

—Annette Mees, head of Audience Labs, the Royal Opera House

Today, leaps in technology make it possible for productions like Symphony and Current, Rising to take viewers out of the concert hall on more elaborate journeys around the universe. The HP Reverb G2 VR headset, for example, “has the ability to process an absolutely fantastic amount of data, delivering even the most elaborate animations with seamless continuity,” says Montse Serra, HP’s general director of solutions and services for southern Europe. The headset also offers unparalleled 4K resolution and a 114-degree field of view, with heightened active-listening capabilities. As you focus your gaze on an individual musician, you can hear their specific instrument more clearly. 

“You are the protagonist,” Serra says, in contrast to the passive experience of watching a video. “More and more, this is how new generations like to consume media.” 

So far, this digital approach seems to be working. Not only has Symphony received critical acclaim, “70% of spectators say the experience has inspired them to listen to more classical music, and eight out of every 10 say it has stimulated them to go to a live symphony concert,” says Elisa Durán, Deputy General Manager of La Caixa Foundation. And she’s not surprised. “Technology manages to situate the spectator in the midst of the orchestra and at the heart of the music.”

Bridging the classical with the future 

Today, VR technology tests the imaginations of cultural institutions as they look to the future. With the opportunity to reinvent themselves on digital stages, operas and orchestras must also adapt to the effects of new technology on their audiences. For one thing, “We all have shorter attention spans,” explains Houston Symphony director Lesley Sabol, who says anticipating cultural shifts like these is essential to staying relevant. 

While the traditional classical music concert is still at the core of Houston Symphony’s programming, Sabol says, “We're always looking for new and innovative ways to showcase the talents of the orchestra and to also collaborate with other mediums.” 

An audience's view of the inside of a violin when they are wearing HP's virtual reality headsets to experience the orchestra show, Symphony, by the la Caixa Foundation

la Caixa Foundation

A visual exploration in VR to the interior of a string instrument. Blending VR with symphonic performance is attracting new audiences.

In the past, these efforts have included live performances of the score from movies like Harry Potter and Star Wars while the entire film plays on a screen, with the more recent addition of February’s Music Illustrated: Virtual Reality in Concert. As the symphony played Debussy’s Clair de Lune and other favorites, Austin-based visual artist Topher Sipes performed live choreography while holding a paintbrush in virtual space. As the movement of both his body and brushstrokes synched to the music, the effect was evocative of a magic wand. “I was enamored by Disney’s Fantasia when I was a little girl,” says Sabol, who commissioned the performance. “I always thought it would be interesting to do that in real life.”

On virtual stages across the globe, productions like Symphony; Current, Rising; and Music Illustrated have already demonstrated the power of combining VR and classical music to create a new kind of performance. What’s more, the burgeoning technology has real potential for bringing their work to the greater public — whether it’s by erasing barriers of transportation and cost, transforming the stage by engaging more of the senses, or making the viewer an active participant. 

“What’s really exciting to me about this is the combination of classical stagecraft with what’s possible now with the magic of technology,” says Mees. “It’s sort of a hybrid model between the future and the past, and that reach across time feels really exciting and fruitful.”


RELATED: See how live theater comes to life in unexpected ways on the virtual stage.