Musician, conductor and composer Ken Whelan describes his experience working on Out of theOrdinary/As an nGnáth, the new virtual reality community opera from INO, coming this month to Kilkenny Arts Festival.


Like so many musicians, all of the projects I was working on came to a sudden and very definite stop in March 2020. My days, once a flurry of activity were now a looming void. Let us jump to March 2021. It was a strange time. We were a year on from the initial restrictions and yet music had yet to publicly re-emerge and a timeline for such was uncertain.

A social media post by Irish National Opera and Civic Theatre in March 2021 caught my eye. They were looking for participants in a new virtual reality community opera, entitled Out of the Ordinary/ As an nGnách.

Ken Whelan (with accordion) and musicians during
the Out of the Ordinary workshops

Opera? In VR? OK, I'm intrigued now.

I signed up for a multitude of reasons. I was familiar with composer Finola Merivale by reputation and was excited to get to work with her. In addition, opera wasn’t in my creative wheelhouse. I had pre-conceived notions about opera, and I wanted a chance to dispel those. Finally, I feel very strongly about community music work, and the idea of bringing opera to a community really resonated with me.

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Watch: Out of the Ordinary - behind the scenes

I must admit to being a little apprehensive and excited when I logged into the first online session. As I said, opera wasn't familiar to me, and I was worried that my ignorance would be very noticeable. My fears were completely unfounded. The online sessions were a revelation, as a disparate group of people immediately started to collaborate on musical projects guided and curated by Finola. Ideas were bounced around the group and several pieces began to unfold. We collaborated using a custom-built platform where we could add our ideas at any time. By the end of the online sessions, it was apparent that something special was happening.

Ken Whelan

In August 2021, something special did happen, we were able to meet in person for the first time. We had a series of creative workshops in Dublin where all our creative ideas really began to move from an abstract concept into something tangible, strangely paralleling our move from virtual sessions into meeting in person. We met the creative team who would be guiding us on our voyage. These weekends saw us discuss and explore stories, imagery, sounds and musicality drawn from both our imagination and experiences.

The winter of 2021 saw us continue working online with all of the groups from around the country until we came to a significant milestone where we could meet again–motion capture for the animation! Each group donned motion capture suits and translated our physical actions into the VR world.

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Watch: Out of the Ordinary - motion capture workshop

More recently, we met again in the recording studio and recorded various parts for the opera, using both regular instruments and household objects to create a new soundscape.

Community participants from Inis Meain, with Chorus Master Molly de Burca
and Studio and Outreach Producer James Bingham (Pic: Jeda de Bri)

Before this project started, I had never been to an opera. Now I've been to see five and performed in one. My own pre-conceived notions have been challenged and the entire process has been a fantastic journey of creativity. Something indeed Out of the Ordinary!

Out of the Ordinary/As an nGnáth is at Kilkenny Arts Festival from Tuesday 9th - Sunday 14th August and Dublin Fringe Festival from Friday 12th - Thursday 25th September - find out more here.