What links a scientific research station in Antarctica with a unique opera performance in Germany's capital?

The answer, unlikely as it seems, is underwater sounds. Since 2005, a remote acoustic observatory has been recording the sounds of the deep sea using underwater microphones placed below the ice shelf. These otherworldly sounds provided the inspiration for an opera that premiered on Sunday night in Berlin.


As you might imagine, this was no ordinary opera. Staged in the breathtaking Neukölln baths, the AquAria_PALAOA took place almost entirely underwater. Fully clothed performers entered the pool up to their necks so that their voices could be heard above the surface as well as below it, whence two underwater microphones broadcast the submarine sounds. Around the water's edge, musicians accompanied the singers. As the drama intensified more of the performers and even some instruments entered the water, creating ethereal and extraordinary sounds, which were interspersed with recordings of whale and seal songs from the Antarctic depths.

PALAOA (PerenniAL Acoustic Observatory in the Antarctic Ocean) is an undertaking of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, a leading German institution that studies environmental issues at its wide network of research stations. Fittingly, palaoa is also Hawaiian for "whale".


Before Sunday's debut performance, there was a live link-up with scientists stationed near the PALAOA station and an in-person introduction by Lars Kindermann, the physicist and acoustics specialist responsible for the project. Kindermann explained that the recordings originated as part of research into the effects of human-made sounds on marine life.

In order to gauge the influence of human-generated noise, they first needed a control: a sonic image of the sea without any unnatural interference. This proved a difficult task in the busy oceans because of water's efficiency as a sound conductor, so the team came up with a technique that uses hot water to drill holes in the ice shelf. They then submerged acoustic sensors into the sea 100 metres below. The sensors offered unprecedented insight into this underwater world. What's more, in addition to recording sounds of expected animals such as killer whales, blue whales and humpbacks, the acoustic sensors picked up a number of mysterious sounds still to be identified - a task that has become a project in its own right.

While Kindermann and his team explore the secrets of the deep, the opera's artistic director and lead soprano Claudia Herr uses their eerie-sounding results to examine an equally complex puzzle: the very human preoccupation with immortality. Exploring this theme, the underwater opera features the leading lady using scuba gear to emulate the movement of a whale, whilst a man wearing a suit plays the role of a melancholy killer whale. Accompanying them is a choral ensemble of "seals", as well as five musicians and the sub-aquatic recordings of PALAOA. As the characters search for perpetual youth and the performance builds to its dramatic conclusion, the effect is surreal and enchanting to both the ears and eyes.


There will be additional performances of the AquAria_PALAOA this month and next, and in September.

[Photos via Claudia Herr/AquAria_PALAOA]

This post originally appeared on New Scientist.