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The Crest of European New Wave Opera

General Director & CEO Keith Cerny eagerly anticipates the United States premiere of Dutch composer Michel van der Aa’s unique 3-D opera, Sunken Garden, in March.

published Sunday, November 5, 2017



Dallas — One of the most exciting parts of my job is collaborating with many of the world’s best opera composers, and bringing their works to the Winspear Opera House stage – sometimes by commisisoning world premieres (like Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott, Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s Everest, and Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus), and other times by presenting novel existing works in their national or regional premieres (Doug Cuomo’s Arjuna’s Dilemma and Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers, to name but two).

Patrons who have attended TDO productions in recent years know that I am also intensely interested in working with composers who are experimenting with technology and projections, in order to develop and extend the possibilities and boundaries of the operatic art form. (Since the move to the Winspear Opera House, projections have played an important or central role in 10 separate productions). Most of these composers have deep roots here in America, but Europe is also producing extraordinary new works by fearless composers that push the technological envelope.  One of the most innovative and imaginative of these is Michel van der Aa of the Netherlands. Something of a polymath, he is an equally accomplished composer, stage director, and film director, with a deep understanding of how technology can enhance—without overpowering— contemporary opera.

Photo: Priska Ketterer
Michel van der Aa

One of van der Aa’s most important works is his unique opera, Sunken Garden, which I had the privilege of seeing at the Opéra de Lyon in 2015. I found the work very intriguing, having already watched it on video, but wanted to see it in person before making the commitment to bring this new work to Dallas.  (As an aside, the title in French is Le Jardin Englouti, with its hints of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande). The opera draws upon a palette of unique resources, including three live singers, an amplified chamber orchestra, a physical set, standard two-dimensional projections, and three-dimensional film. The film, which van der Aa directed personally, includes both spoken dialogue by the production’s six actors and sung performances by two classically trained opera singers: Jonathan McGovern and Kate Miller-Heidke. Miller-Heidke, who is also a pop singer and composer (among her works is the wildly popular 2015 opera set in Australia, The Rabbits), has a luminous and completely convincing presence on film; the intensity, vulnerability, and pathos she brings to her role in Sunken Garden is not easily dismissed. The libretto is by acclaimed British novelist David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas), and deals sensitively with the issues of guilt and mourning, and the desire to forget past sins. Van der Aa’s direction of the film component elicits powerful, realistic performances; this is no token accompaniment to the action onstage.  The ending does contain shock occult elements that may cause some patrons to squirm in their seats, but it is impossible to see this work and not feel its lasting impact.

The opera is also a technological tour de force. The production I attended in Lyon relied on 10 separate projectors. (As a comparison, TDO’s acclaimed world premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick had but two). The projectors were divided into two groups. The first presented standard two-dimensional projections. The second presented true three-dimensional film, brought to life by special glasses provided for the audience. Because of the generous backstage space at the Winspear Opera House, we are able to mount the production with “only” eight projectors, reducing the cost of this U.S. premiere. Two of the cast members coming to Dallas, Roderick Williams and Katherine Manley, also performed in the production that I saw in Lyon. The third role will be performed by another artist intimately familiar with van der Aa’s work, Miah Persson.

I attended a second major Van der Aa world premiere in March of 2016, Blank Out (which has also received excellent reviews in its recent New York performances). As with Sunken Garden, Van der Aa focuses on themes of remembrance, memory and loss. The work is described as a chamber opera for soprano, baritone, choir and 3-D film, and Van der Aa directed both the live performance and the team that created the film that is incorporated into the production. The work includes one live performer, the character Woman (performed at the premiere by Miah Persson), and one character on film, Man (Roderick Williams, who has performed in numerous performances of Sunken Garden). Ms. Persson also interacts with pre-recorded versions of herself on the screen.

The libretto is based on the mournful poetry of South African poet Ingrid Jonker.  The action takes place by the sea and is full of ambiguity. Which character is still alive, and which dead? Which character played what role in rescuing the other from drowning? This choice of location and theme is especially poignant, since the poet herself committed suicide at the age of 31 by walking into the sea at Cape Town. Three-dimensional film plays an important role in this production, but with a twist: the Woman character manipulates cameras focused on a model of a house, enabling us to see images as they are projected on the screen, while also remaining in character.

In addition to the technical sophistication, and the multi-faceted performance by Ms. Persson, who has to sing, act, and manipulate the production elements, the work is one of the most subtle-yet-effective I have ever seen in opera. Even 18 months after I watched the performance, I can still easily revive the emotions the work brought out in me—of loss, nostalgia, loneliness, and emptiness—perhaps most reminiscent emotionally of the scenes set in a foggy and depressing San Francisco in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

A third Van der Aa project is his interactive song cycle, entitled The Book of Sand (see video at the top of this post), based loosely on the short story of Jorge Luis Borges. This unique project, part musical performance, and part technological juggling act, can also be downloaded as an iPhone App from the Apple Store. Featuring, once again, one of his favorite collaborators, Kate Miller-Heidke, The Book of Sand tells the same mysterious story from three different perspectives (not unlike Akira Kurosawa’s groundbreaking 1950 film masterpiece, Rashomon), and allows the user to take control of the musical and visual experience by moving between these three strands. At the heart of the story is an elaborate machine, drawing on elements from Dada and Surrealism, which the live performer interacts with to tell the story.

One of the great pleasures of my job as General Director & CEO is bringing extraordinary new works and talents to North Texas. Sunken Garden remains one of the most innovative works I have seen in recent years, and I know that our audiences will enjoy being transported to an unfamiliar yet lush, green world, to explore the mysteries of this special place. We are also eagerly savoring the technical challenges of this work, with its unique blend of opera singing, chamber orchestra, and stunning visuals. To ensure that all audience members will experience the full beauty of the 3-D film, we have reduced the size of some seating sections in the Winspear Opera House, and have made plans to provide two types of glasses: those for people who do not wear glasses (but may wear contacts), and those that do (this set of glasses is designed to fit comfortably over existing glasses). Continuing her memorable stream of bold contemporary works performed with The Dallas Opera (to date, Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse, Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers, Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s Everest, Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, and Doug Cuomo’s Arjuna’s Dilemma), TDO’s Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement will conduct, and van der Aa will direct the Dallas production personally. 

I look forward to seeing you there!


◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears the first Friday of each month in









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The Crest of European New Wave Opera
General Director & CEO Keith Cerny eagerly anticipates the United States premiere of Dutch composer Michel van der Aa’s unique 3-D opera, Sunken Garden, in March.
by Keith Cerny

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