Invisible Cities: The Science of a Silent Opera

Artbound provides an exclusive look at the avant-garde opera, "Invisible Cities." Watch our one hour special focused on the making of "Invisible Cities." here.

In one of my graduate school classes, our teacher posited the following question to the class, "What is the largest challenge faced by the modern sound designer?" While we all waxed poetic on the lightning-quick development of professional equipment, our teacher reached into his pocket and took out his answer: an iPod. He postulated that the accessibility and availability of high quality audio, once sequestered to movie theaters, hi-fi listening rooms and concert halls, has raised audience expectations so high that meeting them requires an extraordinary sonic experience. We will be able to achieve such an experience for "Invisible Cities" in a site-specific location, thanks primarily to the advanced technology, ingenuity, and support from Sennheiser.

The technology of "Invisible Cities" | Photo: Joris Debeij
The technology of "Invisible Cities" | Photo: Joris Debeij

Silent Opera?

On a typically damp August night in Edinburgh a few years ago, some friends invited me to a Silent Disco. "What's that?" I asked, and they described a room where people listened to a DJ spin but with no traditional sound system, just a bunch of wireless headphones. What makes this experience truly unique is the inability of a passerby to not hear what all the commotion is about unless the drunken crowd brays along with the chorus at the top of their lungs (guilty as charged!). I was taken by this communal event where the element of sound allowed for both an intimate and collective experience.

Flash forward a year, and I'm working with some friends of mine on a show at the Getty Villa. During a lunch break, I decide to decompress by taking a guided tour of the Villa by one of their talented docents. Once we convened, instead of the docent speaking loudly to this small group, we were all handed a wireless receiver and headphones networked with the docent, so we could roam freely within a range and still receive the information which they practically would whisper into our ears. Very quickly, I began to think of the artistic possibilities of such a system.

The technology of "Invisible Cities" | Photo: Joris Debeij
The technology of "Invisible Cities" | Photo: Joris Debeij

My initial vision was something smaller and simpler than "Invisible Cities," revolving around a small portable system receiving only one or two wireless microphones to a portable mixer, and beaming that back to a group of people on a tour which would appear to get more surreal as the tour progressed. (Conveniently, Sennheiser also makes museum tour audio systems, so for me, this idea is certainly not dead!). But after a conversation with Yuval, we came to the conclusion that the piece had to be more of an intervention on an unexpected public place, rather than a quirky exploration of a museum space. Once Union Station was bandied about as a possible location, another friend from The Industry's family mentioned he had contacts at Sennheiser. One thing led to another, and they quickly jumped into the deep end with us!

No (static) Squealing (static) Feedback!

Once the space and the piece were in place, I had to start to devise the complete sound system required to make this work. Obviously, this called for some out-of-the-box thinking, and I quickly enlisted the aid of some of my wilder colleagues, as well as one of the top production houses here in L.A., Bexel ASG. The conversations we had outlined many of the quirks of this production idiom, which at the same time make this project easier and harder for my team and I.

The technology of "Invisible Cities" | Photo: Joris Debeij
The technology of "Invisible Cities" | Photo: Joris Debeij

One problem faced by sound engineers everywhere is a basic question of physics. No matter how hard we try in a traditional live sound environment, no one will hear exactly what we hear. The acoustics of a room make every seat a slightly different aural experience from the next, and the mere physical presence of an audience absorbing sonic energy changes the acoustic nature of the room. For the headphone conceit, we are creating the entire aural environment from the ground up, so I know what goes to all 150 headphones will be exactly the same -- my mix is your mix, period!

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The other major advantage we have is a complete lack of feedback, or those annoying squeals you hear when a microphone is too loud near a speaker that sound is coming out of. Since the sound is coming directly from the microphones to the headphones, in order for feedback to happen in this equation, those microphones would need to be placed between your ears and the headphones, and somehow I think that will be physically difficult to do.

The technology of "Invisible Cities" | Photo: Joris Debeij
The technology of "Invisible Cities" | Photo: Joris Debeij

Far and away, the biggest challenges on this project are the wireless issues. Professional wireless microphones utilize frequencies in the old UHF television bandwidth (everything over channel 13). In the olden days before the advent of digital TV, within a given channel there would be individual data spikes within a TV channel and we could sneak wireless microphones in between those spikes, but with digital TV, the entire channel range is full of data thus making it harder to place frequencies within the spectrum. Thankfully, Sennheiser's newest wireless microphone systems (the 9000 series), all have spectrum analyzers built in so we can quickly and efficiently set microphone frequencies.

All of this technology is quite amazing, but what really warms my heart is the response I got from our conductor, Marc Lowenstein, when he first put the headphones on at a rehearsal. His amazement level was stratospheric, as was mine since we'd proven to ourselves that this crazy idea will actually work.


Read more about Invisible Cities:

Invisible Cities: The Dematerialization of the Opera
Artistic director Yuval Sharon details his inspiration for "Invisible Cities," and the endless possibilities opened up by the use of headphones. The presence of wireless technology in the experimental work creates a new operatic experience -- and maybe even expands the definition of opera.

Invisible Cities: Composing an Opera for Headphones
In composing the music for "Invisible Cities," Christopher Cerrone created many levels of orchestral detail that would evoke the elaborate and fantastical places that Calvino

Invisible Cities: The Choreography of Union Station
Dancers in "Invisible Cities" execute an array of moves in Union Station that range from rigorous solos to improvisational and hip-hop-like explosions, to glacially slow stances.

Finding Space in the Inferno: Observations on Calvino's 'Invisible Cities'

Union Station is an ideal place to realize the opera "Invisible Cities," an adaptation of Italo Calvino's book about relationships between built environments and social and economic life.

Invisible Cities: The Finale
Here's a roundup of Artbound's behind-the-scenes features examining "headphone" opera "Invisible Cities."

Artbound Special Episode 'Invisible Cities'
Artbound presents a one hour special focused on the avant-garde opera, "Invisible Cities."


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