Exclusive Opinion: Waste Paper Opera Company

Wednesday, 27th September 2017

Having brought two shows to Tête à Tête in so many years Birmingham based Waste Paper Opera Company’s Artistic Directors James Oldham and Klara Kofen have been exploring all things opera and AI recently.

Read Klara’s thoughts on it here:

‘my love, it flomy pass to be human’
Artificial Neural Network
– by Klara Kofen


How is art to respond to the mess that’s been the last two years (other than raising its finger and saying ‘I told you so!’)? The work of political satirists is made redundant by the very politicians they are satirizing, geopolitics seem to have turned into a dizzying, absurd chaos, and an intricate web of artificial intelligences ‘optimize’ our view of the world, so we don’t even have to decide what books to read, who to befriend, and who to elect.


Be it the herald of a glorious utopia or the harbinger of our doom, artificial intelligence shines a harsh light on tough questions about what it means to be human: it provokes intractable ethical dilemmas about our relationships with one another – and with non-human beings: a Japanese insurance company replaced its entire workforce with IBM’s Watson Explorer AI; a twitter bot shocked the Homo Sapien community by adopting the racist and sexist views of its programmers; and, most recently, we found that we are but an off-switch away from some embryonic form of the so-called ‘Singularity’ when a pair of Facebook algorithms invented a more ‘efficient’ language than English. On the other hand, these artificial agents promise safer roads with self-driving cars, better health with more accurate diagnoses of complex conditions such as schizophrenia, and fairer societies, with robots poised to take the care sector into their capable chrome hands, liberating a swathe of underpaid, mostly female workers.


If we, wittingly or otherwise, allow artificial intelligence to steer our cars, make medical diagnoses and influence our political decisions, why not give an artificial neural network some creative authority in the writing of a libretto, a score, and the narrative of an opera?


Opera, a genre inextricably linked to its funding bodies and venerable institutions, is not known for its progressive politics, embrace of new technologies or narratives. This is largely due to the fact that opera houses have the agility of tanks when it comes to moving with the times, with colossal costs for productions planned up to five years in advance.Then there’s the clique of (largely male, largely white, mostly old) ‘creatives’ and producers, who consistently confuse their own exclusive tastes with ‘the obviously beautiful’, or the aesthetic per se. What’s more, their (largely white, mostly old, mostly rich) audiences often seem more interested in having their own values and escapist reveries catered to than anything else. This is all discouraging for those who might hope that opera could respond to current developments in art, science and politics.


But it was not always so. About ninety years ago, a group of composers and writers sought to challenge ‘the aesthetic per se’ (namely Wagner, at the time). Aided by the progressive Weimar state, they created operas that actively engaged with new technologies by including film projections in their staging (yes, that idea is about a hundred years old), as well as weaving technologies into the narrative (Kurt Weill’s 1927 opera ‘Der Zarlässtsichphotographieren’, ‘The Tsar is having his photograph taken’, is a good example), using the musical styles of the day like dancehall or jazz. Most importantly, they aimed to create opera that would entertain people of all backgrounds. ‘Zeitoper’ (“opera of the times”), as this genre was called, died with the fall of the Weimar Republic.


In the eighteenth century, Vaucanson’s automata – self-moving machines that mimicked human and animal life – provided philosophers, scientists, and artists with a locus for their hopes and anxieties about the impact of new technologies on society. It was this lively debate that inspired the story of ‘i’-The Opera, Waste Paper Opera Company’s new production for the Tête à Tête Festival. ‘i’ is an exploration of the latent eroticism in the (mostly male) human desire to create (mostly female) artificial beings. In that sense, it belongs to a rich tradition of narratives inspired by Ovid’s myth of the misogynistic sculptor, Pygmalion, who falls in love his own creation, the sculpture of a beautiful woman come to life. In our story, an inventor is forced to create an android as a birthday gift for a chronically morose princess. In attempting to teach his creation to speak, to feel, and to become a person, he falls prey to his own narcissism, and finally, unwittingly, programmes his creation to kill him. The automaton ends up in a cage, locked away, as the princess’ toy for eternity.


Curiously, the eighteenth century did not produce a single adaptation of the Pygmalion myth that gave any significance to the acquisition of language by the sculpture, despite the abundance of theories linking language development and human morality. In our version of the story, the development of language takes a central role. We are happy to be working with Janelle Shane, research scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who rose to fame after training an artificial neural network to generate cooking recipes, and most recently supplied The New Yorker with a text, generated by a neural network, that was trained on Donald Trump’s speeches. She supplied us with a text generated by a neural network trained on a database of Shakespeare and Indian Epics, created by Dr. Amita Kapoor. This text, and the process by which it was created, is performed in ‘i’, and crucially influenced the structure of the opera.


On a musical level, phonetics and the construction of sentences were two starting points for the generation of musical material: Christian Bök’s seminal work of poetry, Eunoia, which consists of five chapters, each containing poems using a single vowel, was the basis for the generation of musical material based on phonetics. The other crucial component was the Melisma Stochastic Music Generator, which was used to artificially generate musical material. We looked to the music of the past century as a database for a process in which we (the humans) copied the processes by which a neural network might generate a love song from a set of a thousand love songs.


In the 1980s, an algorithm called RACTER created a collection of surreal poems titled The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed, which Bök called ‘an obit for classic poets – laureates, who might see, in the artful ranting of a machine, nothing but the untimely synopsis of their own demise.’ Waste Paper Opera Company is a group of artists from various disciplines, who create works of art together, devising music and making artistic decisions. Why not expand the creative circle to an artful neural network?


New and experimental opera needs a home, where its intimate ensembles, rough-and-ready costumes, its joyful fusions with diverse musical and artistic genres, and its biting satire or outright silliness, are not considered a sign of incompetence, or a misunderstanding of how things ‘ought to be’, but the potential for a new kind of opera. In the absence of a state with a progressive art politics, and within the small scene of private funding bodies that has not yet adapted to rogue works of music theatre that defy categorisation, festivals are essential for this new form of performance art. For the past ten years, the Tête à Tête Festival has provided hundreds of small companies, directors, composers, writers and designers with an inclusive environment for experimentation and networking. With cheap tickets, free performances, and a curatorial policy that is looks both outward and forward, Tête à Tête is creating a network of artists with the potential to redefine a genre – one that is otherwise doomed to die with the gentleman’s club that currently holds it hostage.


You can watch and find out more about Wastepaper Opera’s production of “I” The Opera HERE

You can find out more about the work of Waste Paper Opera Company HERE