Michel van der Aa might call them operas, but none of his music-theatre pieces conforms to conventional notions of what opera has been for the last 400 years. Video images and real-time electronics share the stage with the live singers and instrumentalists. Each element is woven into a dramatic fabric that Van der Aa totally controls, writing or adapting his own texts and directing both the film and stage action, as well as composing the score. Yet the 40-year-old Dutch composer is unequivocal that the music is his starting point. “First and foremost”, he says, “I consider myself a composer. But I’m a composer who refuses to stop with what you hear. I’ve always been interested in film as a hobby, and as soon as I started composing, there was a theatrical element in my music. Even if it was just a few gestures, I was already thinking about what you see as well as what you hear.”
Van der Aa’s work list extends across the whole range of vocal, instrumental and orchestral genres, but it’s been his operas – three so far – that have done more than anything else to establish his international reputation and reveal him as one of the most distinctive of the younger composers working in Europe today. His ability to fuse music, text and visual images into a totally organic whole sets him apart from nearly all his contemporaries.
As does his insistence on doing everything properly – understanding all the technology involved in achieving what he wants in his multimedia schemes and mastering the techniques needed. “We are living in a technological age, so I think we should use what is around us everyday. Though I don’t rule out the possibility that sometime in future I could write an opera without any film or electronics,” he says.
Despite his musical talent, Van der Aa opted to study not music but musical engineering at university, learning his way around a recording studio from the inside, and only after that did he decide to concentrate on composition, studying at the conservatory in The Hague, where his teachers included Louis Andriessen. It was through Andriessen that Van der Aa got his first big break, when he was asked to compose the electronic music interludes for Writing to Vermeer, the opera that Andriessen created with Peter Greenaway for the Netherlands Opera in 1999.
Before completing his first music-theatre piece, One, a rather Beckett-like monodrama for soprano, with video and electronics, Van der Aa took himself off to the US for a year to study at the New York Academy of Film.
After Life performance at the London Barbican Centre
“I found that there were a lot of similarities between film-making and composing – in the way you deal with time, in the way that you edit a film – and for me it was a very natural extension to my music, stretching my vocabulary so that I could cope with more ideas.”
To judge from One, Van der Aa seems to have acquired an almost instant mastery over the visual medium. The hour-long piece is a dazzling counterpoint of live and recorded imagery, natural and electronically transformed sounds, which knits together the interrelated tales of five women and their relationship to the live protagonist in a text that Van der Aa wrote himself. One certainly seems to have impressed Pierre Audi, artistic director of the Netherlands Opera, who soon afterwards commissioned the composer to write a work for the company.
Van der Aa chose Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda’s striking 1998 film ‘After Life’ as the basis of his music-theatre piece. “It was an amazing framework, and I immediately saw a way in which it could become an opera,” he says. “I went to see Koreeda to ask his permission, and he was very surprised – I don’t think he realised that people still wrote operas!”
Like the original film, Van der Aa’s opera is set in a way-station halfway between earth and heaven, where the recently dead are processed before being allowed to continue their journey into the after life. In the week they spend there, they are helped by “social workers” to decide on the one defining moment in their lives, which is preserved for them on film, and which they then take with them into eternity.
Koreeda’s film intercuts real-life interviews with those of the actors, and Van der Aa followed the same pattern for the opera, creating his own collection of filmed interviews in which people recall their life experiences, and integrating them into the fabric of the action in the same way. The “real-life” interviews on video mingle with the fictional plot that is acted out on stage by the singers, though as the 100-minute opera goes on, the boundary between what is real and what is imaginary becomes increasingly blurred, and the singers begin to appear in the filmed interviews, too.
The chamber orchestra’s role is that of a commentator as well as an accompanist, though Van der Aa tells me that in the version of After Life that’s coming to the Barbican later this month it may be significantly enhanced. “I revised the score thoroughly last year. I got rid of two characters, so there are now six rather than eight, and I wasn’t too happy with the music, so I rewrote 30 minutes of it – the length of the piece is the same, but there are two new scenes and new arias.”
Teasing and confounding his audience seems to be a constant preoccupation for Van der Aa, whether it’s in the way the narrative of one of his pieces can turn in on itself or totally shift its parameters, or the ambiguity in the sounds of his music themselves, not knowing whether they come from the live voices and instruments or from their electronic transformations. In fact in his third “opera”, The Book of Disquiet, the only vocal music is not composed by Van der Aa at all, but comes from a fado singer, the wonderful Ana Moura, who features in some of the work’s ravishing film sequences, which the composer naturally directed.
Written for the Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, the piece is based on Fernando Pessoa’s extraordinary posthumous collection of fragments of the same name, in which Pessoa himself takes on a whole gallery of different creative personas, each contributing his own set of reminiscences and reflections.
Even an apparently straightforward piano piece, like Transit, which was first performed at the Huddersfield festival last autumn, acquires a wholly new dimension when Van der Aa accompanies it with a specially shot video, turning it into a poignant meditation on the loneliness of old age. “The idea behind a piece should always be something I can explain in one sentence,” he says. “Then I think about how I can translate it for an audience – the kind of tools I need to get that idea across. It could be just a string quartet, or it could be a full-blown ensemble with film projections. I’m interested in many things, I’m an art omnivore. I want to get a grasp on how things are made – it’s a natural curiosity that never stops.”
— Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 29.04.2010
Richard Suart with alter ego