Although, to be fair, Madama Butterfly on magic mushrooms isn’t exactly how this new venture is being billed. Rather, it’s a “hyper reality opera experience”, described by the venue as offering a “radical new way” of experiencing the art form, in which “you — the audience — are at the centre of the performance”.
If it all sounds a bit vague, then that may well be on purpose. I came to Current, Rising with little knowledge of what to expect — all I’d been told is that it would involve a virtual reality headset, and a poem set to music inspired by the liberation of Ariel at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest — but after emerging from it, I’ve decided that stepping into the unknown is exactly the way to experience it.
It all takes place within a luminous structure, inside the Linbury Theatre. It’s designed to accommodate four people at a time — all masked and socially distanced — who each wear a headset, headphones for the audio, and a backpack housing the high-tech electronics.
There’s a guide on hand to explain the set-up, and who stays with you throughout the 15-minute experience, in case you need any assistance. You wouldn’t know they were though — they’re completely silent, and once you’ve got all the gear on, you’re in an entirely different world.
And that’s when things start to get bonkers. I look around at my surroundings, and then at myself, before realising: I’ve disappeared. All that remains of me in this new realm is a pair of glimmering, dismembered hands. I can see the other attendees, but they’re no longer in their human form — they’ve transformed into hazy apparitions.
A glowing door appears, and we step through. To describe exactly what happens next would be to ruin it, so let’s just say this: there were times when it was beautiful and meditative, times when it was almost overwhelmingly trippy, and others when was I thoroughly convinced that if I stepped off the glowing podium beneath me, I would meet my demise in the bottomless abyss below. More often than not, though, it was all so enthralling that I found myself grinning from ear to ear.
It doesn’t stop with the visuals either. At some points, a breeze wraps around me and the floor begins to shake. With all this happening, I realise that I’m not paying as much attention to the audio as I should be — maybe it’s because lockdown has bludgeoned my attention span, but at least it’s a good excuse to pay a second visit. The 15 minutes went by in a flash.
It feels, as we resurface after lockdown, that this is exactly the kind of thing that London’s art institutions should be doing. It’s bold, it’s exciting and it’s innovative. After a year stuck indoors, what more could you ask for?
From May 21 to June 10, roh.org.uk