A Taste You Can Hear
September 23, 2013

A Taste You Can Hear

As a classically trained musician, I can remember the countless times I entered the stage to sing the beautiful melodic lines of my character’s thoughts. My music director, in the background of my mind, telling me how I needed to dive so deep into the mind of my character that we become one. We share the same thoughts, the same feelings, sights, tastes…  The courage of the artistic imagination has now become quite literal. Thanks to the efforts of Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta, and a little help from creators in design and science, the Algae Opera came into existence, transforming a singer’s voice into an edible experience.

Besides the Life of Pi example of eating algae for survival, you wouldn’t think that humans really share a close, romantic bond with the organism. However, artists Burton and Nitta designed a special, futuristic suit that collects the carbon dioxide exhaled while a vocalist is singing. The carbon dioxide feeds the algae, which matures during the performance and is later prepared and served as a meal. That’s right, you can literally taste the music.

Mezzo-Soprano Louise Ashcroft has trained herself for this new phenomenon so that she can further enhance her lung capacity to produce the best quality algae possible. As our relationship with the algae has been thus defined, now the romanticism comes into place. The most minute changes in pitch and frequencies can actually ascertain the algae’s color, texture and even whether there will be a sweet or bitter taste.

An opera singer’s breath is one of the most important factors into becoming successful and without proper technique and control, you would be doomed to sing Bizet’s intoxicating high notes in Carmen or the exhausting 5-1/2 hour long opera Die Meistersinger von Numberg by Wagner.  When enticing the algae with the lure of the Sirens however, a completely different type of breathing technique is used.

“The algae mask captures carbon dioxide to grow the algae and requires a non-reflexive breath cycle to maximize carbon dioxide output. This mean’s the singer needs to take the breath cycle to the point of collapse,” Ashcroft explains. “In today’s opera tradition, this type of breath cycle is considered inefficient and undesirable due to the issues surrounding sustainability and aesthetic. However, in The Algae Opera, a breath cycle based on a point of collapse is considered efficient and ultimately desirable, for it produces more algae.”

With the help of a little fertilizer “pick-me-up” to help the algae grow fast enough to harvest after only a short period of time, the food is then prepared and served in a sushi-type style. This preparation allows the audience to not only devour and digest her musical capabilities, but the environmental inspiration of the artists themselves. Although we have seen the growing interest in mixing painters playing to the music of pianists live on stage and gliding into the food industry with painting and wine studios, The Algae Opera sheds luminosity on the potential to develop and advance biotechnology through art and opera.

The artists, who all studied together at Royal College of Art in the United Kingdom, have collaborated to bring their creative forces to research projects that convey how the world is influenced by technology and science. The Algae Opera installation is receiving interesting reviews and has been shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, United Kingdom. Some of the other algae projects the artists have commenced include Algaculture and AfterAgri.

The single spotlight is beating down on your face, bathing your skin in a luminous silk. The audience is completely silent as if they are peering into your soul anxiously awaiting your next move, your next sound. The orchestra mourns in a steady decrescendo, their last lingering notes to allow your character to carry the weight of the story all within your next note alone. You take a deep breath, lower the hood to your cape and stare into the distance with a look of fear and remorse as you have sent the entire convent in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites to death. You delve into the moment pleading that it will last a lifetime… or at least until dinner where you can relive your glory by eating it.

Image Credit: Burton Nitta via The Sierra Club

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