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Think video games aren’t art? This Minecraft opera begs to differ.

Now that would be a plot twist.  (Courtesy of Mojang)
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Seasoned Minecraft players know that, with serious dedication, they can craft all kinds of cool things in this game, like portals to the netherworld or full-sized models of the Enterprise-D. But what about a brand-new opera?

That's an ambitious project under construction at Virginia Tech University, where the school's music department has recruited eight high-schoolers to plot, write and build a Minecraft set for an opera to debut this December. Students are building a massive set for "OperaCraft" in the sandbox building game, and will use their Minecraft avatars to act out the opera's major roles. Voice students from the school's music department, meanwhile, will lend their voices to the project, which is set to Mozart pieces.

The result, so far, has been a fruitful meeting of art and technology, and arguably another illustration of how video games are evolving into their own art form. The art of video games has already earned an exhibition at the Smithsonian and the first Grammy nomination for a video-game score. Making a new opera, then, may not be much of a stretch.

Ariana Wyatt, an assistant professor of voice at Virginia Tech, thought of the idea after hearing about other programs aimed at fostering a love of opera in the schools, such as those that let students yell out suggestions for opera singers to improv on the spot. She, too, wanted to find a way to make opera more accessible to everyone and not just those training to work in the performance world.

"We all strongly believe, of course, that in-depth exposure to the arts is important to live, not only to reach out and make future musicians," Wyatt said. "I knew there was a way to create a set like this, I knew the technology was there."

Looking for software that would let students build with few limits, she hit upon Minecraft at the suggestion of her VT colleague  Ivica Ico Bukvic, who studies the intersection between music and technology and has founded his own Linux laptop orchestra. A call for participants turned up eight students from VT's home base in Blacksburg, as well as in Roanoke and areas across Virginia's New River valley.

The project has turned into a big, cross-departmental project.The students came in once a week to work on the story, with the help of one of the school's English professors, who also helped the group craft the libretto -- or words -- to the opera.  Funding came from the school's Institute for Creativity, Art, and Technology. Then, Wyatt and another music professor then set the libretto into the (public-domain) works of Mozart. The group has also called in some help from folks on campus with computer science and technology training, to give the blocky Minecraft avatars a little more, well, animation.

"We at least want their mouths to move," Wyatt said. "We have a team of computer scientists and music technology people who are working to retrofit Minecraft a little for some facial control...and to allow for them to have a little more body movement."

The plot of the opera itself is still under wraps, and Wyatt would only say it's "very teenage boy, very post-apocalyptic." Come performance day, one student will act as a sort of creative director for the scene being projected at the school's new Cube performance space, which includes screens for projectors. The other students, of course, will be acting out their opera with their own avatars.

Ultimately, Wyatt said, the goal is to have some sort of product come of the project that's easy for others to pick up and use on their own, at other schools so that they, too, can have fun obliterating the line between the arts, sciences, high culture and popular entertainment.

"We want it to be accessible by lots of different areas," Wyatt said. "All they have to do is plug it in."