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Electronic fantasy of an artificial intelligence – Laila is an interactive, co-created opera with music by Esa-Pekka Salonen

by Sini Mononen

How does artificial intelligence sing? Art made using AI has emerged as a genre unto itself in the arts in recent years. Laila is a new production of the Finnish National Opera and Ballet that brings AI into real-time interaction with audience members.

Laila is a 20-minute piece with music by Esa-Pekka Salonen that might be described as an interactive chamber opera. It is uniquely performed in a videodome, a structure that houses the audience for the duration of the performance. A virtual environment is projected on the walls and ceiling of the space, and this environment changes according to the movements of the audience. Sometimes it seems as if the music follows the visitors as they move around the space. Only six audience members are admitted at a time, and there are no musicians or other performers present.

Laila was created by a large team. In addition to Salonen, it included Tuomas Norvio (sound design), Paula Vesala (dramaturgy) and the Ekho Collective (visual design), the latter being a group of professionals in arts, design and technology. (Read more in FMQ's article Art of the future – the art of together.)

Audience members are admitted into the videodome singly from a holding area where they are prepared for the performance by giving them respirators and plastic shoe covers. They are also given small speakers to wear on a cord around their neck; these play part of the music. Indeed, even though Laila was not specifically tailored for the current coronavirus circumstances, it certainly gives that appearance.

En route to the videodome, every visitor has to give a sound sample for Laila to use; in a small anteroom, they are instructed to speak single words into a microphone for the AI to use as material as the opera proceeds.

Although there is no orchestra present, the sound material used in Laila was recorded by the singers and Orchestra of the FNOB. The result is somehow distanced and alienated from the familiar drama of opera. Perhaps this is intentional. Laila is at once a nightmare and a fantasy – a dream image of the world as dictated by technology.


The dehumanised production of Laila prompts the question of the nature of the artwork. If we remove the orchestra, soloists and conductor and house the performance in an unusual venue, can we any longer describe it as an opera in the conventional sense?

The relationship of opera and new technology first emerged as a subject of debate long before the advent of AI. In the 1930s, for example, there was a heated discussion about whether opera should be recorded in cinematic form. Film was regarded as a medium far too naturalistic for recording of the enchanting, fantastic world of opera that relies on the magic of the moment. It was feared something would be lost if opera were to be captured on film.

Subsequently we have come to see cinema as a larger-than-life artform much like opera, albeit the sense of drama we expect from opera is if possible even greater.

Because of the heavy front-ending of technology in Laila, the universe of the piece seems somehow dystopian and predetermined. Its emotional landscape is surprisingly restrained and cool. It is difficult to perceive a narrative in the piece. In musical terms, it is more a space than a story, albeit it is organised into sections illustrated with visual cues.


The interactive element introduces a measure of controlled chance into Laila.

The immersive and interactive environment created by the Ekho Collective represents an approach that has been popular in visual arts for some time now: attracting audiences with visual environments that react to the movements of visitors in the space. In its visual elements, however, the environment of Laila is quite traditional, featuring an electronic forest, a sea of flowers and geometric figures floating in space.

In the advance publicity, Laila was described as a modern diva, a heroine akin to Salome. Laila is not particularly capricious, though. Instead of an aria sung by the AI, the work concludes with the audience being treated to the sound of its own voice. The words spoken by visitors before entering the videodome appear as part of the musical texture towards the end of the performance. The words build up into fragmented sentences in an imitation of the poetry of Laila itself. 

While the number of people admitted to each performance is very limited, there is plenty of capacity: there will be more than 300 performances this autumn.

Laila Trailer by FNOB and Ekho Collective


Music: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Dramaturgy: Paula Vesala
Visual design: Ekho Collective

Soprano: Krista Kujala, Sanna Iljin, Helianna Herkkola
Alto: Anna Erokhina, Raisa Vaarna, Ida Wallén
Tenor: Halim Shon, Joonas Eloranta, Jere Martikainen
Bass: Arto Hosio, Andrus Mitt, Robert McLoud, Jyrki Korhonen
Percussion: Uolevi Högström, Jukka Koski, Virva Kuusi, Mauri Myllys, Heikki Parviainen, Keijo Puumalainen

Also featuring as the voice of Laila:
Finnish: Paula Vesala, Miriam Hilpo
Swedish: Gunilla Hemming, Emil Paloniemi
English: Sanna-June Hyde, Miriam Hilpo

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Screenshot from the Laila trailer by the FNO. Watch the trailer here.