Step inside Butterfly’s house in virtual reality opera night

Arts are embracing cutting-edge tech in Puccini production

Cutting-edge visual technology is pushing its way into the hallowed halls of culture this summer. New 3D replicas of missing artworks have been installed at the home of the 18th-century writer Horace Walpole, while Welsh National Opera is going a step further, creating a virtual reality performance.

Authenticity was once key to the value of a work of art, as well being a crucial notion in the world of entertainment. Yet soon it is likely that even experts will be unsure what they are looking at.

Many of the paintings and artefacts collected by the gothic author Walpole, son of the first prime minister Robert Walpole, are being gathered for display in Strawberry Hill House, the villa he designed in Twickenham, south-west London, ahead of the 300th anniversary of his birth in September.

Some pieces, however, are either missing or judged too fragile to transport and have been replaced by 3D replicas.

3D replicas of 18th century portraits will be hung in Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham, where Horace Walpole lived.
3D replicas of 18th century portraits will be hung in Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham, the home of Horace Walpole. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

Last summer a first facsimile of a double portrait of Walpole’s parents was hung in the Blue Bedchamber at Strawberry Hill. The original was first displayed there in 1754 but is now in the Lewis Walpole Library in Connecticut and is too delicate to travel.

Three weeks ago, 34 other works, including a 1765 portrait of Walpole’s nieces and a series of studies of Henry VIII’s courtiers, were also brought to the villa after 3D technicians at Factum Arte, based in Madrid, recreated them. The work, funded by an anonymous donor, will form part of an exhibition next year.

The value of fakery is not an alien concept at Strawberry Hill, its curators point out, as the building is a reproduction of medieval architecture and the portraits of Henry’s courtiers were George Vertue’s copies of Hans Holbein originals.

Welsh National Opera’s virtual reality experiment – Magic Butterfly– is installed in a shipping container, and will allow visitors to step inside scenes from two operas, Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.

The experience, created with Google Daydream technology, will open in Cardiff on 14 July before touring to Birmingham, Liverpool, Llandudno and London through the year.

Virtual reality was also used at last month’s Cannes film festival, where the Oscar winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu premiered his innovative Carne y Arena Mexican refugee experience.

The technology is also being widely adopted across marketing and business. It has been used to recruit into the armed forces by giving potential submariners an idea what it would be like to live underwater.


Vanessa Thorpe Arts and Media Correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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