Welsh National Opera's virtual reality (VR) experience called Magic Butterfly is situated in a bright red shipping container, placed smack bang in front of the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay.

The experience will enable visitors to engage with Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and Mozart’s The Magic Flute in a new way, through two four-minute tailor-made immersive experiences. Opera is immersive by its very nature, but this is a new offer. It’s not a gimmick. It’s about reaching new audiences and allowing people to experience opera and, indeed, VR in exciting and accessible ways.

This event follows on from the success of WNO Field, a large-scale digital light installation at the Wales Millennium Centre in 2016. It’s part of Welsh National Opera understanding and realising itself as a ‘digitally native organisation’.

This pop-up work can be part seen as part of a wider utilisation of itinerant creations on the part of institutions: witness, for example, the poppies at the Tower of London, set to visit Cardiff shortly or the pop up claws on National Museum Wales, Cardiff. At Creative Cardiff, we held our own Pop-Up Hub at the Wales Millennium Centre last year. This experience was wholly different, but had the same premise of trying something out as an experiment for a short time period. I was also involved with Cardiff University’s Festivals Research Group when they ran a pilot project with Sŵn Festival to produce a pop-up music museum in the Castle Arcade. There’s something engaging about pop-up experiences. 

Magic Butterfly brings together the idea of a temporary installation or pop up with VR technology. It’s one of the first, if not the first, operatic VR experiences ever. WNO commissioned REWIND to produce the VR work, which utilises Google Dream technology with the motion capture of soprano Karah Son, who recently sang the role of Cio Cio San in WNO’s production of Madam Butterfly. Gwyn Eiddor has designed the shipping container space, which has room for 10 headsets. This experience features an original WNO recording and there is a real intensity to being so close to the singer in the Magic Butterfly world.

The Magic Flute experience is especially accessible to younger viewers as it features all kinds of animals – but older people will enjoy it too, not least as it brings to mind The Magic Roundabout television programme.

This immersive event is experienced through a headset and headphones, so in some ways this is an experience mediated by technology rather than people. And, yet, for me the experience of attending the press event brought home the fact that many different creatives had been involved in making this experience: singers, musicians, designers, set makers, digital creators and a street artist, and probably others too. At Cardiff University I’ve been helping to connect people whose work connects with VR; this group has recognised that VR is a bit like the mobile phone or laptop: it’s going to be a big deal and it seems to be here to stay.

Magic Butterfly is scheduled to be in Cardiff from 14 July until 11 August, before going on tour. But it’s back in Cardiff 23 September until 14 October, 2017.

This new immersive experience is part of a new digital journey for WNO and part of their wider engagement strategy. I can’t wait to see what they do next.