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The birth of 21st century opera

Sunken Garden, Michel van der aa’s mind-bending opera for English National Opera at the Barbican, takes advantage of parallel developments across the entertainment spectrum.

Stage musicals and pop concerts have been experimenting for several years with holograms, to greater or lesser effect.  Pre-filmed video clips no longer startle us in the middle of a staged performance. Recent operas like Nico Muhly’s Two Boys and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin use the stage space inventively to suggest parallel universes. These are all progressive steps towards a new theatrical culture, a culture that aims to engage restless, texting under-30s more than their predictable, passive parents.

What Sunken Garden does is to provide a clear indication as to how opera can engage with a different mindset and a younger audience. Its flashy high-tech is not a gimmick: it is fit for purpose. Sunken Garden is a David Mitchell fantasy of the living and the dead. Creating it in two distinct forms – real (live) and virtual (hologram) – the technology is actually needed to fulfil the artistic idea.

The music, similarly, weaves in and out of the imaginary worlds its composer has co-invented. It suggests that the composer of the future may need to be as fluent in computer imaging and programming as he or she is in notation and instrumentation. The most encouraging aspect of Sunken Garden is its integrity. It is hewn from one idea, one piece of rock, using the best tools available in 2013.



That said, it is still a work in progress. Integrating filmed speech and sung dialogue leaves parts of the libretto inaudible. None of the characters is developed sufficiently to inspire warmth or grief. Technology increases the emotional distance. There are various nits within it that critics can pick. But with further rehearsal in the many international productions lined up for this startling new work, these problems will be resolved.

What makes Sunken Garden the first opera of the 21st century is the possibilities it creates for the rest of the genre. Imagine a Fidelio in three dimensions, a Wozzeck with holograms, a Mask of Orpheus in which Earth and Hades occupy the same perceptual space. Imagine static Julietta, Martinu’s spooky masterpiece, or Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, brought to life by means of parallel realities.

Sunken Garden lights the way ahead. It sparks hope of operatic renewal.


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  1. Haven’t seen the opera, but the old adage comes to mind that stage craft is similar to stain glassed windows. Just about anything is impressive if its big enough. I hope 21st century opera will follow the lead of 20th century theater in works like those of Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, and many others – a return to truths unpadded by stagey busyness. Opera should strip away 500 years of extravagant staging and orchestration and reveal true substance with genuinely integrated music, text, and acting.

  2. Having seen Saturday’s performance, my wife and I agree with Norman’s comments. Technically wonderful and superb singing but not much more – as apparently shown by the audience’s less than wholehearted response at the end. Or maybe like us they were not entirely sure what the opera was all about. Still, worth an evening out to see the way opera could develop.

  3. Dr. Marc Villeger says:

    ” It suggests that the composer of the future may need to be as fluent in computer imaging and programming as he or she is in notation and instrumentation.”
    And run the hundred meter dash under 10s while at it…

  4. For first 21st century opera I would give the nod to Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. Technically it was premiered in 2000, but it’s had many productions in this century and it is both modern and well appreciated. Heggie’s collaborators now use video projections (as in Moby-Dick) but it enhances the production without feeling that it would be required to still get the point. Nonetheless I’m looking forward to seeing Sunken Garden.

  5. Violachick says:

    The orchestra is HATING playing it though – it’s apparently utterly unchallenging musically apart from being exhausting, and the composer has spent the vastly over-long rehearsal series basically telling them that he wants them to sound more like the synthesizer he composed it on.

  6. Thierry Eschaich’s new opera from Lyon, “Claude” is now on for streaming for the next couple of months as is a “video opera” by Gregoire Hetzel, “La Chute de Fukuyama” (The Fall of Fukuyama) He was (is) the “end of history” thinker. Both deal with contemporary social and moral themes. The music is far more engaging than the previous generation… “Claude” is particularly gritty and engaging. After the success of “Written on Skin” is there a new generation of important opera about to emerge?

    • I managed to catch “Claude” last month. The music is decent but it is no “Written on Skin”, and there’s nothing groundbreaking about it.

      Echoing other correspondents, it’s interesting how little review material mentions Van der Aa’s music. As a theatrical experience I’m intrigued, and I’m looking forward to seeing it this week, but the art form will be propelled forward by works in which the music holds its own as much as any other element. In that sense, I’d risk calling “Written on Skin” a masterpiece – I was left stunned by it (the staging and design worked perfectly in concert with the music).

      • Graf Nugent says:

        Couldn’t agree more, Glerb, regarding ‘Written on Skin’. I remember writing somewhere that I felt it was the benchmark by which contemporary opera should now be judged. Utterly stunning and brilliant in every respect. I’d like to hear The Sunken Garden, though.

  7. Michael Redmond says:

    Umm … Is the musuic any good?

  8. The “3D” element made Sunken Garden more flat (or “2D”) than all other operas I have seen (contemporary or not). And, is this the best a Grawemeyer Award winner can do? On paper, it is attractive, shame about the result.

    • Quite. Having seen it now, I agree that the 3D film flattens the second half out. There are some great 3D effects – water droplets scattering towards you, for instance – but it’s all contained on a screen, within a clearly delimited frame. When they can work out how to project the 3D film all over the stage (floors, walls…) then it’ll be truly immersive; I suspect this technology is a long way off though. If you want a “3D experience” in opera, why not just build a set and have the singers use it to its full potential? The set here was limited to absent, and the singers only ever stood, sat or lay on the floor; there was little interaction with physical set elements, furniture or props.

      In general, my impression was that it was a technically impressive show but little more. The films (3D and 2D) were well lit and well projected, over several different screens. The electronics were beautifully blended with the live chamber orchestra, and sound and video cues were precisely executed. This is something that conventional opera houses can definitely learn from – too often, technical and AV elements aren’t given enough planning, budget and rehearsal time.

      Unlike some correspondents, I thought the text came over very well (Tuesday night). Hats off to whoever was balancing the sound: it’s a very difficult job. And, of course, hats of f to the cast for their clarity and commitment.

      Ah…. the music. First things first: Norman, I don’t know why you say “it’s tonal throughout” and have a go at the chap from the Telegraph for calling it “discordant” – not a value judgement here, but it just isn’t tonal, and there is non-functional dissonance more or less all the way through; sure, looking at it vertically there are lots of (added-note) tonal chords in the cheesier sections, but not very much tonal functionality. Just a technical point. That aside, maybe critics haven’t mentioned it because there really isn’t very much to say about it… it’s dull dull dull; the best way I can think of summing it up is by calling it Jonathan Dove B-sides without the dramatic nous. How this chap won the Grawemeyer is beyond me…. is there any of his previous oeuvre you’d recommend me pursuing to change my mind?

      The plot is corny sub-ITV2 sci-fi. The unaccompanied spoken-word film passages are cutesily acted (and why not keep some underscoring here…? The orchestra jars when they come back in). The backstory passages at the end are out of proportion and disrupt the flow (want to know how to do backstory? Play through Götterdämmerung). The last third of it is very tedious. The singers are great.

      If they’d wanted to truly integrate the live and pre-recorded elements, why are the live singers (Roderick William, Kate Manley and Claron MacFadden) completely segregated from the two on film? I was waiting for the Roderick Williams character to appear on screen – that would have been impressive. But no – flatness and separation.

      In short, a very well executed bog-standard contemporary opera, and a dull evening. But I’m bloody glad ENO did it, and I count myself lucky to live in a culture where I can go and see such productions.

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