At a Concert, Floating Through Outer Space in Virtual Reality

On Saturday night, some 6,000 people gathered on the Prospect Park Bandshell’s grassy knoll and waited to be beamed up into space. Via Google Cardboard VR headsets, they would float through the Orion Nebula, a Milky Way star cluster more than 1,000 light years away. As they floated, they would listen to a Norwegian string orchestra, a choir of 100 and two Metropolitan Opera stars singing about the parallel life cycles of stars and humans.

This was the Hubble Cantata, a staggeringly ambitious work that attempted to bring the cosmos down to Brooklyn and make sweaty crowds bordered by beer tents and porta-potties feel like astronauts. Part of the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! concert series, the event fused music by composer Paola Prestini with astrophysics and a finale in virtual reality.

Prestini’s operatic score, with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, did not encourage the “astronauts,” as the MC called the audience, to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight: Instead, it was a thundering opus that obliquely told the story of a woman losing her child and committing suicide. The 20-person orchestra was silhouetted behind a translucent screen projected with Sasha Arutyunova’s ghostly black-and-white photographs of a couple in despair, hands forming shadow puppets, and a glowing pregnant belly. This human tragedy was framed by a parallel narrative charting the birth, life, and death of a star, narrated by the Hubble’s lead astrophysicist, Dr. Mario Livio.

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