How Deakin’s latest collaboration is bringing stardom back from the grave

Researchers at Deakin University's CADET Virtual Reality Lab are working to preserve the legacy of Australia's favourite opera singer.

By U2B Staff 

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Everyone’s dreamt of being on stage, an adoring audience cheering in support, decked out in an outfit to kill.

Deakin University is working to take that out of your daydreams and make it a reality – well, a virtual one at least.

Researchers at the university’s CADET Virtual Reality Lab are working with curators from Arts Centre Melbourne to create immersive experiences for museum-goers and art gallery appreciators to enjoy.

The first such project is bringing back to life opera superstar Dame Joan Sutherland, giving participants an opportunity to step into the diva’s shoes.

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Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II (right) talks to opera singer Dame Joan Sutherland at a reception held at Buckingham Palace 11 March, 2004. Source: Fiona Hanson / Pool / AFP

The team is currently working on scanning all of Sutherland’s famously opulent outfits, using a rather unusual method.

Using a machine traditionally used to monitor skin conditions and detect cancer, the ultra-high resolution medical scanner has instead been put to work providing super detailed images of the elaborate dresses to be used in the virtual recreation.

“The equipment can scan an entire costume in a few seconds … once we develop methods to digitise these models we can put it into virtual reality and really the possibilities are endless,” the lab’s director, Professor Ben Horan, told ABC News.


“We can do exciting things like wearing Dame Joan Sutherland’s costume on stage and experiencing what it might have been like on stage doing that kind of performance.”

Professor Horan hopes the project will preserve an Australian icon before they are lost to the annals of history. By entering the data into the virtual world, it will also be accessible from anywhere in the world, meaning visitors to Paris’s the Louvre will be able to enjoy the same experience. Likewise, museum-goers in Melbourne can tour the world-famous gallery and view the Mona Lisa.

Any operaphiles out there will immediately know who Dame Joan Sutherland is. She put Australian opera on the map and is noted for her contribution to the renaissance of the bel canto repertoire from the late 1950s through to the 1980s.

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An image of Dame Joan Sutherland (top), is projected on a screen during the memorial service for the Australian opera legend at the Sydney Opera House on November 9, 2010. Sutherland who passed away aged 83 on October 10 at her home in Switzerland, was hailed as “La Stupenda” and “voice of the century”, after dazzling European audiences with her vocal range and ability from the 1950s until her retirement in 1990. Source: Rick Rycroft / Pool / AFP

Sadly Sutherland passed away in 2010 but she left behind an operatic legacy and collection of magnificent costumes. Those are the first to enter the 3D catalogue of Melbourne Arts Centre. But they are far from the last.

The centre is looking to one day scan and catalogue some 690,000 pieces in the Australian performing arts collections.

It seems they will have a willing assistant in dermatologist Rod Sinclair, the man behind the machine.

Sinclair told ABC he felt privileged to lend his medical scanner the help with the project.


“As soon as we acquired the machine and saw it in use, we realised that it had many applications beyond medicine,” Professor Sinclair said.

“In order to preserve these dresses you can’t touch them but having these quality images, it almost feels like you can touch it.

“The technology is moving so fast and we get incredibly high-resolution detail on these pieces, right down to the threads and even the fibres in the threads.

“You can see things that the naked eye just can’t see.”