To open with a broad stroke, opera is generally seen as a medium that embraces tradition. For example, while the repertoire certainly has a myriad more terrifying works to offer, the Royal Opera House offers Don Giovanni and Macbeth as selections from their Top 5 Scariest Operas article. Bearing this in mind, I couldn’t help but appreciate the particularly rich novelty of fitting my smartphone into a specialized cardboard case to watch the first ten-minute episode of The Parkside Murders, the virtual reality horror opera.
The first episode of The Parkside Murders fully embraces its medium as a VR experience, and uses the unique strengths of VR to tell this story. While appreciating opera and cinema are traditionally group experiences, virtual reality (for now anyway) is solitary by nature. Furthermore, the fixed perspective of traditional mediums allows for a layer of separation as an audience member that this VR experience sheds. Rather than treating this experience as a 360-degree film, The Parksville Murders forces you into drama immediately, establishing the viewer as a named character in the opening supertitles. Before learning the names of our protagonists, you learn that you (yes, you) are The Watcher. As this episode unfolds, The Watcher, unable to move anything below the neck, begins to wonder what their role is in this story. The lack of autonomous mobility in this visceral, 3D environment is frustrating, but a constant reminder that The Watcher is not here to help, harm, or change. The Watcher exists to bear witness. After being directly addressed by the supertitles, and later by one of the main characters, Watcher is left wondering about the nature of their role in this narrative. This isn’t a question one generally runs into in cinema, or opera. Director Cari Ann Shim Sham* transforms several formalist techniques prevalent in horror films such as frenetic editing, use of visual and aural white noise, and frame-rate manipulation in their adaptation for a VR experience. The line between the story and its telling is blurred, and opens up a floodgate of possibilities for storytelling in this medium.
Virtual reality aside (or about as far aside as it can be moved from the main focus) The Parksville Murders is, afterall, an opera. Scored for soprano (Corinne, played by Kacey Cardin), mezzo (Sarah, played by Mikki Sodergren), a small chorus, and electronics, composer Kamala Sankaram incorporates music in a way that is always in service of the drama, and mounting sense of dread. In this episode, the electronics are a clear backdrop for more interesting musical material: Sankaram’s vocal writing and extended use and manipulation of diegetic sound. Sounds of white noise from a nearby television set, sharpening knives, and nearby knocking are deeply embedded into the work, and had this Watcher constantly inspecting their surroundings in horrified anticipation. Sankaram’s vocal writing is, aptly, the cornerstone of this score, and well supported by Cardin and Sodergren’s excellent performances. Captivating in its own right, one begins to notice that Sankaram’s approach to vocal writing itself is being used to tell a story. Cardin’s initial plea of “Help me, help me…” (a plea made directly to The Watcher) is eerie, angular, and immediately stands in stark contrast to the electronic droning that comes before it. Later, the surreal nature of Sodergren’s entrance “on screen” is mirrored in Sankaram’s writing for her character. While Cardin sings at a slower, measured pace, often repeating words and small phrases, Sodergren sings parlando, often speaking in full sentences. The contrast between our two leads leaves so much room for uncertainty about what exactly The Watcher is bearing witness to. Again, it is hard to know where the story ends and its telling begins. The differences in the text setting between these characters and Sankaram’s blending of diegetic and nondiegetic sounds certainly leaves room for this story to dive deep into the realm of the supernatural, but it is too soon to tell.
The first episode of The Parksville Murders is available now exclusively on Samsung VR, and it is well crafted, immersive, and genuinely scary. Recommended. During the daytime. With the lights on.