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.