Throughout the years the Holland Festival has built up a reputation of programming innovative and adventurous forms of Performing Arts. In his last year as the Festival’s artistic director, Pierre Audi, continues with that tradition with the Dutch premiere of Michel van der Aa’s 3D film opera ‘Sunken Garden’ with a libretto by David Mitchell.
Last year the Holland Festival presented Mikhail Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’ directed by Simon McBurney, which included some astounding visual moments that are ingrained in my brain. It’s hard to put them into words – but I’ll give it a try – as to what the set designer, Es Devlin, created: Two actors are lying on the floor in a position as though they were astride a horse whilst a ceiling projector beams a picture of the ‘horse’, which is made out of chairs, underneath the bodies on the floor. This amazing image is then projected onto the wall behind the stage. Another amazing image retained is that of an actress who, whilst lying on the ground, pretends to be falling off a building. The building windows she passes in her ‘descent’ is beamed onto the ground beneath her and this tableau is projected onto the wall.
In April, ‘Sunken Garden’ had its worldwide premiere at the Barbican Centre in London. The Opera garnered a lot of pre-publicity as it was the first Opera containing 3D film. After the premiere, heated debates began in various media, particularly on social media, of people commenting that they either loved or hated the Opera. Some critics said “that it is several years ahead of its time and may represent the salvation of the genre” whereas others commented less favourable: “Seldom has it been my lot to endure anything so toxically flatulent as the drivel which splurges from this thing.”
In the auditorium, prior to the performance of the Opera in Amsterdam, those media discussions created a buzz as people anticipated their reaction to the performance. Others were inspecting the 3D glasses that were provided to them as they entered the hall, with its accompanying text: “Put on the 3D glasses when entering the door under the flyover”.
‘Sunken Garden’ tells the story of a video artist, Toby Kramer, who is visited by Zenna Briggs, the representative of the James and Zenna Briggs Arts Foundation. Kramer tells Briggs about his current project – a film about an software engineer, Simon Vines, who has myseriously disappeared. Three months later, following her agreement to finance the project, Briggs visits Kramer for an update. He tells her that Vines, has now been abducted and taken to a ‘sunken garden’, a peaceful garden in which to entrap the tormented.
When the 3D film is screened, the Opera becomes sonically and visually very arresting. This time, the images ingrained in my brain refer to how Van der Aa succeeds in fusing the real world, on stage, and the virtual world, on screen. To experience the interaction between the singers on the stage and the singers in the 3D film is quite magical, with some mesmerising illusions. In one of the scenes, a long voile curtain slowly moves across the screen as one of the performers pulls a voile curtain toward him on the stage. As the perfomer continues to pull the voile curtain, the curtain on screen disappears, with the curtain then being completely on the stage. In another scene, one of the stage performers swats a mosquito on a pole. The splat of the successful kill appears on the screen in an enormous close-up of the insect and we witness the last movements of its palp.
During the week’s performance of the Opera, I met with Van der Aa, the director, composer and filmmaker of ‘Sunken Garden’ to discuss with him the polarizing reactions to, and criticism of, his work; why opera remains a conservative institution; his concers that inclusion of the 3D film would be seen as a gimmick; the film ‘Avatar’, and what makes him interested in mortality – a recurring theme in his work.
Michel Van der Aa: No, it’s very contemporary, using today’s vocabulary and multimedia imagery. It is, though, a very complex, layered piece with a well thought-out libretto. I try to combine many storylines using pop-music and intricate soundscapes. I felt free to write what each scene needed without asking myself whether it is appropriate within the genre of Opera. The choices I made were very intuitive.
200%: ‘Sunken Garden’, though, pushes the boundaries of what you can do with Opera as a medium and can be considered as the frontrunner of what Opera can be in the future.
MvA: Perhaps. Opera is an institution and a lot of people are attached to the romantic idea of what Opera should be. ‘Sunken Garden’ runs counter to that as I, for instance, directed the performers to sing in a more natural manner. Also, the progression of the Opera is similar to that of how a film is edited as you switch instantly between scences. The tempo is much faster. Fortunately, a lot of young people related to this aspect of the Opera.
The polarizing reactions resulted in a lot of young people writing about it on their blogs, and there has also been a lot of blogging about the reviews. One girl wrote on her blog about ‘The Times’ critic’s comments of the fact that there were a lot of hip youngsters present in the audience who were very enthusiastic about the Opera, but his disparaging manner suggested that young people don’t have the capacity to think and are not able to assess the Opera’s value. There was a hierarchy felt between the older opera critics and the younger audience. That ignited a certain discord.
The other day, someone remarked that there is a discord between digital immigrants and digital natives. The ‘natives’ – people who take digital techniques for granted – are surrounded with it in their lives, irrespective of age. There is also a group of people for whom digital is still a big step – the ‘immigrants’.
If you view the performance as an ‘immigrant’, it will be difficult to understand all of the Opera’s content, which has also caused a certain polarization. Some people had to determine whether the use of 3D film will provide added value. The 3D film commands attention and it will create a distance with the piece if you can’t accept that. The digital native generation takes the 3D film for granted – its not an issue for them – so they may further relate to the piece.
MvA: As it is being preserved. The same with orchestras. Current repertoires of Orchestras is still grounded in Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century compositions, yet they ask themselves what is the reason for the audience being older than 60. An Opera house and an Orchestra almost have a museum like function – a museum of the Old Arts.
200%: Has it also got to do with a lack of adventurous programming?
MvA: Yes, some people are trying to change, such as John Berry [artistic director of the English National Opera, co-commissioner of ‘Sunken Garden’]. In the UK, however, I experienced this conservatism myself. Whilst London is a melting pot of the Arts, it is very conservative in terms of new music. The opera critic of ‘The Daily Telegraph’ gave it one star, but I didn’t mind as his review was so over the top it became funny. A lot of people on Twitter said: “Oh, if he doesn’t like it, let’s buy tickets”. [laughs]
There is also a prejudice, at the moment when electronics and film – in this instance 3D film – are employed; alarm bells start ringing, people comment that its use is cold, lazy and superficial. In five years, I hope that these prejudices are reduced and people can go to a theatre piece or an Opera that uses film where it is no longer an issue. I don’t consider it to be my mission, but it’s my hope for myself and my contemporaries.
200%: In order for Opera to have a future you consider it to be of vital importance that the medium has to change?
MvA: Absolutely. Opera productions are very expensive to undertake and you can’t create a work that only appeals to an inner circle of elderly people. I think it is a task for Opera programmers and creators to find a connection with a new audience and raise subjects that are related to the times in which we we live, to not be afraid and to take risks and be adventurous. Sometimes it might fail, but it’s very important that people like Pierre Audi, John Berry, BAM in New York facilitate this.
MvA: No. There was ‘talk’ that 3D was used in a performance of ‘The Ring’ at the MET. It transpired, though, that 2D projections were made onto a 3D surface. We were the first to use 3D, which created a problem [laughs]. We had a lot of pre-publicity about this element, which overshadowed other aspects of the Opera and created a greater anticipation for the performance.
200%: Did you search for a screed of justification to incorporate the 3D film part into the Opera so it wouldn’t be considered as a gimmick?
MvA: Yes, that was very important. David Mitchell and I have discussed this at length. The space between heaven and earth, the sunken garden itself, demanded for 3D film. We were looking for a way to find a virtual space, in which, people as holograms could appear. For us its very much in the DNA of the libretto and that’s why we chose the use of 3D film.
200%: The use of 3D film in an Opera is not an idea that you have previously considered?
MvA: No. At the time when I started to work on the Opera I saw ‘Avatar’. During the film’s screening, someone stood up in front and I saw his silhouette reflected on the film, which I thought was cool. That is a way to put someone, literally, in a film. I knew about this possibility and, in that way, it came together with the libretto.
MvA: No, I just saw it once. Technically I found it very interesting, less so in terms of storytelling. It is important, though, that this film has been made.
200%: In one of your previous Operas, ‘After Life’, and in ‘Sunken Garden’, the theme of mortality is addressed. What makes you interested in this theme?
MvA: It’s not necessarily death but looking back at life. To be able to value moments of your life is what interests me; what is my life and what has mattered. In ‘After Life’, people chose the most decisive moment in their life, and review the highlights, which is a very positive experience. ‘Sunken Garden’ is less positive as it is only people with a large trauma, who are vulnerable, that are sucked into this garden. It looks at something horrible and how one comes to come to terms with that. I think you will think differently about your life at the moment you know you don’t have a future. That moment in time fascinates me.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers. First and third picture: Mike Hoban
In the second part, Michel van der Aa will discuss how he fused the singers on the stage and on the screen, finding the location for the sunken garden, and what he learned from working with David Mitchell.