Dallas — You can toss your expectations of anything like traditional opera out the window when experiencing Dutch composer Michel van der Aa’s opera, Sunken Garden, which makes its U.S. premiere at The Dallas Opera, opening Friday, March 9. The work debuted at France’s Opéra de Lyon in 2015.
Yet, it is cast as a standard opera and on one level it is exactly that. This dichotomy may seem contradictory and could be confusing, especially since the plot is dense and filled with characters that are not quite what they seem to be. Or even where they seem to be. Let me explain: Part of the opera takes place in a created non-reality, part is on video, and part is real life.
“I wanted to use all technology that is available to tell this story,” says van der Aa, who also directs the Dallas Opera production. “That incudes film and even 3-D.”
The opera, which has a libretto by David Mitchell, on whose science fiction novel it is based, opens in the apartment of our leading character, Toby Kramer, a documentary filmmaker engaged in a mysterious project. He is curious, and increasingly obsessed with, the sudden disappearance of Simon Vines, a computer expert. We see video clips of Toby’s ongoing documentary and are, thus, introduced to Simon.
A rich philanthropist, Zenna Briggs, the point person of a powerful family foundation, unexpectedly visits Toby, and reveals a keen interest in supporting his work to enable him to complete the documentary — and bring closure to the story of the missing Simon Vines. With a major grant now in hand, Toby’s video clips also introduce us to other characters such as Simon’s friend, the mentally deranged Sadaqut Daastani, who is being cared for in an asylum. Sadaqut spins a tale about Dr. Marinus, who he suspects is a body inhabited by a strange non-corporal being (That alone could earn you a one-way ticket to the mental hospital).
Over the 90 minutes of Sunken Garden, the audience meets other mysterious characters as the plot thickens. At one point, the action switches to 3-D, bringing the audience into the real and unreal as some characters appear as holograms. Don’t worry, it isn’t as complicated as it seems.
“We don’t tell you everything or answer all questions,” van der Aa says. “We leave things to the imagination of the audience.”
As to the music, you can toss any expectations out of that aforementioned window.
“The youth of today don’t make as many differences in their music as older people do,” van der Aa says. “The lines are not as firm between classical, pop, hip-hop, and electronica. So I use all available musical techniques in the opera.”
The singers have angular lines to sing and van der Aa pushes the singers beyond their normal range, requiring the men to use falsetto. The orchestra plays what is basically a film score. It is less music than it is atmospheric effects. It may sound odd in the opera house but it would not be out of place in a horror or science fiction monster movie.
The singers (English baritone Roderick Williams, British soprano Katherine Manley, Swedish soprano Miah Persson, crossover singer-composer Kate Miller-Heidke, British baritone Jonathan McGovern — all making their Dallas Opera debuts) and the orchestra have little interaction. The small chamber orchestra is heavy with percussion, although there is only one percussionist on duty, and has a concurrent electronic track playing along.
Conductor Nichole Paiement has the challenge of putting all these different musical streams together. She has to accompany singers that are not there, but are on the screen, and coordinate with the live singers that are physically present as well as pre-recorded and live performed electronica. There are very tonal parts, dramatic parts, places of orchestral outbursts, even rumbling and buzzing. The time signatures change with almost every measure, although to the ear it sounds like an unmeasured stream of musical effects.
Once you jettison all of your expectations and come to Sunken Garden with a child-like mind, free of musical and theatrical conventions, you will find that it is all quite riveting.
The 3-D is perfect for creating a world that doesn’t exist. One reviewer of the opera said it was similar to the use of color in the movie The Wizard of Oz: black and white in the real world but bursting with color once in Oz. Like Oz, van der Aa’s Sunken Garden is a land of dreams, nightmares, and surprising personal discoveries.
» Read more about the opera in former Dallas Opera General Director Keith Cerny's November 2017 Off the Cuff column
» Gregory Sullivan Isaacs will give the pre-opera lecture for all four of the performances of Sunken Garden, beginning an hour-and-a-half before curtain.