In the second part of our interview with Michel van der Aa, he will discuss how he ‘fused’ the singers on the stage with those on the screen, finding the location for the sunken garden, and what he learned from working with David Mitchell.
200%: In bringing together the ‘real’ singers on the stage with the ‘virtual’ singers in the film, did you have sleepless nights as to how it was going to work?
MvA: Yes, especially with the scale. My biggest fear was that you would see a singer being too big or too small in comparison to the singers on screen. With 3D, from every seat, the perspective is different. To tackle that, we built a Marquette of the stage décor, with miniature figures of the singers. Behind them, we placed a 3D TV to see if the scale worked. That was the only way to link it, in which you would believe that the real and virtual world would be connected.
200%: I guess you also have to take into account that each stage is different. Was there a difference between the stage in Amsterdam and that of the Barbican in London?
MvA: The stage in Amsterdam is smaller and, as the stands are quite steep, the audience looks more down on it. As a consequence the 3D effect is quite different in comparison to that of the Barbican where the stage is lower; you see less of the stage floor, which works better for the 3D as the two worlds merge more effectively.
200%: How did you came across the Eden Project in Cornwall in which you filmed the sequence of the sunken garden?
MvA: We considered three places. Initially we were going to film at the Barbican Centre, where there is a greenhouse on top of the building. As the Barbican was co-commissioner of the Opera, it wouldn’t cost much to film there. When we visited the location, though, we decided it was too small.
Then, we considered two alternatives: the south of Spain and the Cornwall Eden Project. We decided on the latter as one of the singers, Kate Miller Heidke, was in South Australia, and she couldn’t make the trip to Spain. It was feasible, though, for her to come for one day to film in Cornwall. We did all of the preparation during the night and shot during the day whilst it was open to the public, so we had a lot of ushers to keep the people from the set. It was a hell [laughs]. In the end, I’m very happy with the final result as the futuristic rooftop worked with the atmosphere for which I was looking – the depth of the garden and the botanical variety. The most important element was that we could ‘expand’ the stage décor into the film. The garden had to be sufficiently large to enable the singers to sing live in front of the camera and, later, ‘merge’ with the singers on the stage.
200%: The novelist David Mitchell wrote the libretto for the Opera. What have you picked up from his way of thinking and working as a writer?
MvA: We had many discussions as to whether a text should be sung or spoken, and what constitutes a good singing text for an Opera. We talked about how to create a text for an aria that can ‘breath’ and how to achieve a balance so that music and text can complement each other.
200%: The Guardian commented about you: “His ability to fuse music, text and visual images into a totally organic whole sets him apart from nearly all his contemporaries”. Do you consider it your specific talent that you successfully can fuse these different elements organically?
MvA: The visual side of music always had my interest. As there are some things I can’t express in music I express it visually. In this Opera that was a huge task and responsibility. Fortunately a lot of the critics considered the 3D film an important part of the storytelling and not for just of reasons of entertainment, that it had added value.
I have an instinct if something will work or not. I have faith in that but I realise with this piece I took a huge risk. I also brought down on me that people, potentially, will react strongly to this. I refuse, though, with a visible project like this to repeat myself and play it safe. Perhaps, you can do that when you’re 95, but not when you are 43.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers