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Why Montreal researchers are measuring the brain activity of opera-goers

Robert Rowat

What goes on inside the brains of people attending an opera performance?

It's a good question and a pressing one for administrators at Opéra de Montréal, who are keen to improve the experience (and increase the return rate) of their patrons.

That's why they've teamed up with researchers at Tech3Lab at HEC Montréal, a local business school, to develop a study that gets inside the heads — literally — of the opera-going public.

Volunteers who participate in the study will be fitted with brain-monitoring equipment and simultaneously filmed while viewing a performance of Bizet's Carmen. One group will watch a performance on a big screen (to recreate the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD experience), while others will attend live performances of the opera, coming up in May at Place des arts in Montreal.

One of the study's goals is to gauge the difference between attending an opera in person versus going to a movie theatre to watch a simulcast.

'Physical arousal'

"Our primary data target is brain activity, which is measured using electroencephalography (EEG)," explains Jared Boasen, a postdoctoral fellow at Tech3Lab. "Additionally, we are collecting numerous other physiological measurements to help us better understand and explain our brain activity results. These physiological measurements include changes in sweat gland activity and heart rate as indices of physical arousal. Additionally, we are tracking and measuring eye movement and changes in pupil dilation as indices of attentiveness, and facial muscle movement as an index of physical emotional state."

A volunteer watches an opera while wearing brain-monitoring equipment.

“There is so little quality research in the performing arts sector," says Patrick Corrigan, general director of Opéra de Montréal. "Too often, we are working on instinct and flying blind, and we are also competing against great players in the entertainment industry who can afford plenty of research. Consequently, the opportunity to invest in a project like this one not only benefits us, but also the entire field.”

The study's potential for the industry caught the attention of Opera America, which secured the financial backing of the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

And in a strange twist, D-BOX Technologies has joined the study. That's the company behind cinema seats with programmed motion effects that have been such a hit with fans of action movies. To determine whether these seats could also benefit the cinematic opera experience, some of the participants in Opéra de Montréal's study will view Carmen from D-BOX-enhanced seats.

"It really highlights what you should listen to in the orchestra," says Xavier Roy, Opéra de Montréal's marketing director and the person behind the study. Out of curiosity, he advance-tested the D-BOX experience. "It enhances the focus of the listener, while creating a surprisingly relaxing experience. It might not be for everyone, but I was not expecting that I would enjoy it as much as I did."

Roy says data collected from the study will be presented at a hackathon in Spring 2020, where guests will become acquainted with Opéra de Montréal's concerns and be encouraged to brainstorm on how technology might improve the "patron journey" and keep audiences coming back.


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