an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

I have seen the future of opera. It works.

Let me tempt fate and proclaim without hesitation that Michel van der Aa’s opera, Sunken Garden, which opened Friday in London, is the first genuine 21st century opera. I had better explain that before the hate mail rolls in.

The stock of performable operas has been stuck between 60 and 80 for the past half-century and shows no sign of growth. Directors would rather stage radical updates of proven favourites than risk empty houses with an untested work. The best a new opera can hope for is a critical success that the general public refuses to share. Few new operas address the fundamental question of what an 18th century art form is supposed to do in the 21st.

Sunken Garden does exactly that. Taking a libretto by fantasy writer David Mitchell, it employs every known device of stage technology and invents several more in order to give the audience as sense of being both there, and simultaneously elsewhere.


The plot hinges on a girl who disappeared and contains elements of the Orpheus myth that has fuelled more operas than any other tale. Film clips, projected onto different parts of the stage, function as backstory. Halfway through, the stage splits into two and three dimensions and the audience has to wear special glasses to experience the full impact. When a tarantula crawls out of the undergrowth and extends one of its tentacles at your left eye, you know you are seeing an opera like no opera ever before.



Sunken Garden messes with your perceptions. Someone is singing, but you don’t know if it’s a character on stage or in a hologram. Van der Aa’s music is tonal and agreeable, but often as disturbing as the stage action. Music is integrated with illusion. This is not so much an opera as a projection of what opera ought to be – what it might become five or ten years from now. And, if it does, there is hope that the art can grow again.


The singers, on stage and off, were sensational, Roderick Williams, Claron McFadden and Kate Miller-Heidke above all. André de Ridder conducted, Theun Mosk was the designer, and the show will go on to Lyon, the Holland Festival, Toronto and far further afield. Such has been the word of mouth on this work in progress that no fewer than 40 festival directors flew in to attend the premiere.

If enough of them share my perception that Sunken Garden has cracked the riddle of opera in the 21st century, stand by for more productions that employ its mind-bending, deeply unsettling technology right across the repertoire.

I have seen the future. It works.



UPDATE: See also here.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. To what extent is it totally dependent on the technology though, Norman?

    - For example, picking up on another of your stories today, would Volgograd Opera ever be able to stage it with piano accompaniment?
    - Will young singers be able to perform extracts with a repetiteur for auditions?
    - Will a CD / iTunes-thingy of this convey even half the effect? Probably not even a DVD, by the sounds of it, unless you are equipped with the latest 3D gizmo.
    - Will this ever be performable at, say, even a reasonably well to-do secondary school?

    That is a genuine point of criticism that I’m trying to make here, i.e. how much does it depend on a big budget. Musicals with similarly ornate sets in the West End are equally fine in a town hall with a keyboard and painted back-cloths. But this?

    Less seriously, I am intrugied by a tarantula with tentacles!

  2. I went this evening with my wife Anjali Mehra, a choreographer in the opera world and agree with much of what you have said. Great execution of current creativity in opera. We have moved forward finally. My only issue was that I couldn’t follow the plot in absolute detail. I would sometimes lose what the singers were saying. I feel that the sound of the voice can sometimes be the focus instead of committing totally to story telling.

    • I had a similar problem at the dress rehearsal, Stephen.

    • <i”I feel that the sound of the voice can sometimes be the focus instead of committing totally to story telling.”

      Stephen, that has arguably been a problem in opera as a whole for most of the past century – and maybe even since the rise of opera seria.

  3. Dr. Marc Villeger says:

    “Someone is singing, but you don’t know if it’s a character on stage or in a hologram”
    sounds like politics… ;-)

  4. Adrian Chorley says:

    Sunken Garden is an astonishing work. Utterly modern and yet truly opera with real feeling and emotion.

  5. Graf Nugent says:

    Sounds intriguing. Would we have to wear the special glasses while watching in on the inevitable DVD? I would imagine so.

  6. Moira yip says:

    Just to add that the company who are doing this marvelously brave piece are the English National Opera, under their artistic director John Berry, and it is on at The Barbican.

    If this review is, in general, a more or less correct description of the production, it raises the question what ‘opera’ actually is. The operas which have survived the times, all have this in common: very good and expressive music, which transcends the plot and turns it into a universal human experience. All stage craft merely serves the core of the art form: its music, which expresses the ‘inside’ of the situation we see on stage, which is its ‘outside’. In opera, these two levels of reality can be experienced by the audience as if they are ‘inside’ the situation and ‘inside’ the characters on stage. If there is no music which can create this emotional bridge, engaging the audience through the music, the result is mere theatre, however ingenious the stage craft and the used visual means.

    This production however, seems to be about theatre, not opera. Where the visual gadgets fill-up the experience and where music is merely some accompaniment to stage sensationalism, it is the visual element that is the core of the production. Nothing wrong with this, but it is not opera. One is reminded of the operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer in the 19th century, which were highly modern and sensational theatre experiences at the time, and hence successful with a broad audience which came to be entertained, nothing more; meanwhile this corpus has sunk into oblivion because it lacked a musical core. In contrast, it has been the Italians, with Verdi and Puccini in the top range, Wagner, and Debussy’s ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’, as well as a couple of operas by Strauss, which define the art form, further developed by Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Their works stay alive and provide material for ever new interpretations in production because of their high quality music AS MUSIC, not merely accompaniment to the stage action. The superb magic of ‘Pelléas’, for instance, is the way in which a whole world of experience is dreamt-up by the music while the stage action hardly needs anything to turn the narrative into a gripping experience. For instance, the scene in the 1st act where the protagonists are on the coast and watching a big ship taking to the see: the entire vision is outside the stage and thus invisible, but what the protagonists themselves see, is abundantly clear from the music, which invokes the entire vision in the audience’s mind with startling clarity. No modern technical device could possibly match the OPERATIC experience of something like this.

    Modern stage technology may operate in the same way as 19C new technology did, but it was the superb music of Wagner, not Meyerbeer, which filled sensational staging with inner meaning and expression, and gave technology the reason of its existence.

  8. In the absence of any description of the music, I’m not much wiser.

    Is this coming later?

  9. Basia Jaworski says:

    Thanks Norman. I’ll see the opera in Amsterdam in June. Very, very curious……

  10. Jerry Pritchar says:

    Oh, this is exciting news! You are so right about the drought of new operas to enter the repertory. I hope this one gets all the acclaim and a wide hearing that is needed for any new work to become accepted by many people, many opera companies and become standard.

    • Aribert Reimann’s “Lear” gets done a fair amount so i’m not quite convinced by the drought.
      As Norman Lebrecht wrote
      ” In the space of a decade, it became a staple of the modern repertoire”

      Of recent operas, i haven’t been overwhelmed with the contributions of Turnage, Ades and Benjamin but i’ve loved every minute of Barry’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant”
      This is a good time for new opera.

      • Hey be careful throwing those surnames around :-) You might like my operas, maybe, and while I’m not so famous as Benjamin snr, I’ve done quite a few of the things! (just not at the ROH’s scale unfortunately, or picked up by the mass media, but still, I do my bit)

  11. Johan Herrenberg says:

    Nice write-up! One correction: it’s ‘Michel van der Aa’. And if you use just his surname, you write ‘Van der Aa’.

  12. Richard Singleton says:

    I went to see it this evening. It is true that the music is the leastt interesting element of this opera. Indeed I felt like I was moving between the melody of Stephen Sondheims “Best pies in London” (well not so much the melody as just that one line of melody over and over again) and a very long recitative. You will not be buying the CD. The staging was however interesting and will engage even those who go to the theatre a lot and have seen the most creative productions at the Barbican.

  13. Ray Lindsay says:

    Great! Been looking for some years for such a leap forward, from Einstein on the Beach to Valis

  14. I wish I was able to see this as (tarantula apart) it sounds like something I’d enjoy tremendously. Hopefully there will be other UK performances.

    Norman: concerning your comments on 21st century opera, did you happen to see Henze’s “Phaedra” when it was done at the Barbican or in Berlin? For me, that work was something extra special – and again the use of non-musical sound and other special effects was an integral part of the production which reinforced the power of the music and words.

  15. Russell Plows says:

    Unfortunately I was not at all hypnotized by the bells and whistles (La Cubana in Spain made this sort of thing look primitive 20 years ago) and came away throroughly dispirited. There were glaring deficiencies in the staging and the music. It’s become a cliché error to rely entirely on projection for scene setting as this invariably leaves acres of space which performers find difficult to fill without very firm direction. On the evidence of this production, direction would seem to be the smallest of Van der Aa’s talents and the singers were left to either gesture into the empty space like operatic hams or cling to whatever was to hand. The nail in the coffin was requiring the singers to lunge at the vertical pool before making an embarrassing crawl offstage in semi-darkness (not difficult to make the screen permeable if you have an inkling of stagecraft). The orchestral writing was accomplished but the vocal writing was rendered in a relentless Moderato which discouraged musical shaping and quickly became monotonous. The whole thing had an air of an audience giving it a second, third, fourth chance and finally applauding the orchestra for effort.

  16. I am absolutely disappointed by Sunken Garden. Perhaps, if the objective of a contemporary opera is to have enough elements (regardless of its actual artistic quality) to attract an audience, then it has done okay (there were quite a ew empty seats the night I went). Artistically speaking however, it is truly awful. I was not surprised to see at least two one star (out of five) reviews on two major newspaper already. It deserves them.

    The music is extraordinarily bland throughout with uninteresting vocal writing staying at around the same tempo. The staging is attractive to begin with, but the main selling point, the 3d film interaction with live singers, simply did not work well. Dare I say, the 3d element added absolutely nothing to the opera. It seems a little bit misleading that Mr Lebrecht said when someone sings you can not tell whether it is a live singer or a hologram, because you can so tell. It was a waste of the 3d technology, as most of the sections with 3d film were a stable shot in the middle of the garden where nothing much moves, and the splashes of water towards the audience added nothing artistically. Just gimmicks really. In the end, no one really wanted to clap but most were polite enough to clap at least for the musicians’ well-done job.

    If you have not seen it, please do not waste your money. And if the is the future of opera, then there is no future at all.

    • Russell Plows says:

      I think it’s interesting that nobody could accuse the critics here of suffering from ‘shock of the new’ (not all that new as it happens). It’s simply that the quality of what was presented wan’t good enough.

    • 3D?

      The natural condition of a stage is already 3D, so what could extra 3D add, in artistic terms?

      An example of a mental multi-dimensional fantasy and creativity is Christian Chaudet’s film version of Stravinsky’s ‘Le Rossignol’ (Virgin Classics DVD) where computer technology is used as a means in the hands of a really inventive and sensitive mind. And this is not even a stage production, but a ‘pure’ film version, closely following the score, full of poetic invention and visual magic, giving ample space to the music to do its effective work. Wholeheartedly to be recommended.

      • My issue with 3D is not really that “the natural condition of a stage is already 3D”, because it isn’t, really – at least not in a traditional proscenium-arch kind of arrangement. It might as well be a 2D screen.

        How you do “3D” (if you must call it that!) is to do theatre in the round for example, or with an apron, having people walking in from the aisles, or perhaps by throwing things at the audience. Or even entirely immerse the audience fully into the performance space, as has been done a fair few times in recent decades (in particular in Stockhausen’s “Licht”, which also brings in the outside of the performance space, i.e. where the audience is not, with the Helicopter Quartet)

        I think this use of 3D goggles is not especially inventive and sounds even a bit clumsy.

        The much more exciting “extra dimension” in opera (and indeed at the cinema) is and has always been the dimension in the soul of the audience-members, anyway. What composers and directors do with it is what changes the game…


          “The much more exciting “extra dimension” in opera (and indeed at the cinema) is and has always been the dimension in the soul of the audience-members, anyway. What composers and directors do with it is what changes the game…”

          That is just very true. But that dimension in the audience-members can only be created by expressive music. The physical 3D effects are a materialist attempt to bring-down the irrational ‘extra dimension’ of musical magic and expression to a physical level. In Stockhausen, this has to cover-up a remarkable poverty of musical invention and craft. I once tried to sit through his ‘Donnerstag aus Licht’ at the ROH & was bored to death in spite of the wild attempts to make the ‘happenings’ on stage ‘interesting’. As for directors: it requires a musical and also otherwise psychological sensitivity and receptivity to create the production from the work in question itself, as it is much easier to pile-up one’s own ideas in materialistic terms with gadgets and the like. As for composers: most of them – at least, as presented in public space – are incapable and/or unwilling to learn from history what works and what does not work. A single aria by Mozart shows that very much can be done with a minimum of musical material, given the required imagination and craft…. It seems clear to me that the problem with contemporary opera is not in staging or directing but in the idiom of the music, which is the only ‘dimension’ that counts, it is the heart of the art form from which everything else follows.

an ArtsJournal blog