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.