Out Of The Ordinary – make a community opera in virtual reality

Musician, bandleader and composer Ken Whelan describes his experience working on Out of the Ordinary/As nGnáthINO’s new virtual reality community opera, is coming to the Kilkenny Arts Festival this month.


Like so many musicians, all the projects I was working on came to an abrupt and final halt in March 2020. My days, once bustling with activity, were now an impending void. Fast forward to March 2021. It was a weird time. We were a year into the initial restrictions and yet the music had yet to reappear publicly and a timeline for that was uncertain.

A social media post from the Irish National Opera and Civic Theater in March 2021 caught my eye. They were looking for participants for a new community opera in virtual reality, titled Out of the ordinary / Like a nGnách.

Ken Whelan (with accordion) and musicians during
Unusual workshops

Opera? In VR? OK, I’m intrigued now.

I signed up for a multitude of reasons. I knew composer Finola Merivale by reputation and was delighted to work with her. Also, opera was not in my creative wheelhouse. I had some preconceptions about opera and wanted a chance to dispel them. Finally, I am very attached to community musical work, and the idea of ​​bringing opera to a community really resonated with me.

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Watch: Out of the Ordinary – behind the scenes

I have to admit, I was a little worried and excited when I logged into the first online session. As I said, opera was unfamiliar to me and I feared my ignorance was very noticeable. My fears were totally unfounded. The online sessions were a revelation, as a disparate group of people immediately began collaborating on musical projects guided and curated by Finola. Ideas bounced around the group and several pieces began to unfold. We collaborated using a bespoke platform where we could add our ideas at any time. By the end of the online sessions, it was obvious that something special was happening.

Ken Whelan

In August 2021 something special happened, we were able to meet in person for the first time. We had a series of creative workshops in Dublin where all of our creative ideas really started to move from abstract concept to something tangible, oddly paralleling our move from virtual sessions to meeting in person. We met the creative team that was going to guide us on our journey. These weekends allowed us to discuss and explore stories, images, sounds and musicality drawn from both our imaginations and our experiences.

The winter of 2021 saw us continue to work online with all groups across the country until we reached a milestone where we might see each other again: motion capture for animation! Each group donned motion capture suits and translated our physical actions into the virtual reality world.

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Watch: Out of the Ordinary – motion capture workshop

More recently, we met again in the recording studio and recorded various parts for the opera, using both ordinary instruments and household objects to create a new soundscape.

Participants from the community of Inis Meain, with choirmaster Molly de Burca
and studio and outreach producer James Bingham (Photo: Jeda de Bri)

Before the start of this project, I had never been to the opera. Now I’ve seen five and played one. My own preconceived notions were challenged and the whole process was a fantastic journey of creativity. something indeed Out of the ordinary!

Out of the Ordinary/As nGnáth is at the Kilkenny Arts Festival from Tuesday 9th to Sunday 14th August and at the Dublin Fringe Festival from Friday 12th to Thursday 25th September – find out more here.

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