First Memory Aria (live). Yvette Bonner, soprano
What was the most decisive moment in your life?
That is the essential question in Michel van der Aa’s opera After Life. Based on the film of the same name by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, the opera introduces us to characters that are about to trade their earthly existence for perpetuity in heaven. They are allowed to relive a key moment in their life one last time in the form of a film, and subsequently take it with them to eternity.
In combining staged action and film, live music and electronics, Michel van der Aa produces a complex structure in a follow-up to his successful one-act chamber opera One. Divergent time planes are reflected in the music and the narrative, while the work still manages to retain its clarity and certitude, drawing on humanist beliefs.
The world premiere of After Life took place in Amsterdam on 2 June 2006 in the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. This performance marked the official opening of the 2006 Holland Festival.
After Life was revived in Amsterdam, London and Lyon in the 2009/2010 season.
In Amsterdam, De Nederlandse Opera presented the newly revised version in Het Muziektheater in September/October 2009, with the premiere on 28 September. The DNO production was staged additionally at Opera de Lyon in March 2010 (three performances beginning on 18 March). The Barbican Centre in London presented a semi-staged performance during its ‘Present Voices’ series on 15 May 2010.
The opera was one of the prize winners of “Music Theatre NOW 2008”.
Margriet van Reisen & Claron McFadden
After Life is set at a way station between Heaven and Earth. There, guides have less than a week to help the newly dead sift through their memories for one defining moment to take with them to Heaven. The opera centers on the grudging respect that develops between Mr. Walter, an undistinguished old man, coming to terms with his uneventful life, and Aiden, the young guide assigned to help him. After Life explores our human need to discover meaning in the humdrum details of everyday life. An exploration of the ambiguous nature of human recollection.
Aiden – Roderick Williams
Mr. Walter – Richard Suart
Sarah – Yvette Bonner
Ilana – Margriet van Reisen
Chief – Claron McFadden
Bryna – Helena Rasker
Tessa Marwick, Juul Muller, Flint Louis Hignett, Bert Hornback, Dee Jager, Esther Jager
libretto after Hirokazu Kore-Eda, adapted by Michel van der Aa
musical direction – Otto Tausk
director – Michel van der Aa
scenography – Dries Verhoeven
lighting – Floriaan Ganzevoort
dramaturge – Klaus Bertisch
costumes – Robby Duiveman
video script and direction – Michel van der Aa
To classify a new opera as a masterpiece is a risky venture, but renewed acquaintance with ‘After Life’ only confirms the [reaction to] the first series of performances in 2006: this is a remarkable opera by a remarkable talent. An opera that in 2006 touched a nerve and again asks the tricky question ‘what was the deciding moment in your life?’ – that is a masterpiece. Everyone, but everyone, must see it.
— 8Weekly, Henri Drost, 3 October 2009
The opera is surprisingly layered… Van der Aa has revised his music extensively, which has improved the already impressive piece: the plot is clearer, the music is more colourful and the characters have more depth. As a music theatre maker, Van der Aa achieves unparalleled results. ***** (5 stars)
— De Volkskrant, Frits van der Waa, 30 September 2009
Van der Aa set his sights high and managed to adapt the exceptional qualities of Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s film After Life (upon which the opera is based) to the stage. In doing so he uses his very own musical and cinematic idiom, typified by the duplication of sounds, images and characters. […]. The Muziekgebouw stage lends itself wonderfully well to this form of theatre. […] . But After Life is more than an impressive puzzle; it is an enthralling piece of music theatre. […] The interwoven layers and editing are exciting stuff and the singers sparkle too, with Williams and Suart in the leading roles […]
— Frits van der Waa, de Volkskrant, 6 June 2006
[…] Van der Aa’s piece combines the imaginary with the real, intercutting the fictional operatic action with documentary video interviews in which a variety of people are asked to remember the defining moments in their lives […] But it’s the meshing of that plot with the documentary elements that proves so teasingly effective, for as the 100-minute piece goes on, the boundary between the two blurs until the four interviewees are seen on video encountering the operatic characters, so that their touching stories seem to infuse the fantasy with something much more directly emotional. It’s a strange effect, supported and sustained by van der Aa’s ensemble writing, which is dominated by richly detailed string textures and enriched by electronic transformations.
— Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 8 June 2006
[…] An impressive piece of music theatre by Michel van der Aa […] The premiere, beheld by an audience including Queen Beatrix, was technically outstanding. Van der Aa clearly has a firm grip on the very many ingredients of which his opera is composed. […] The beautifully measured mix of instrumental music and electronics, which resounded through the concert hall, was executed with an unusual degree of perfection. The opera’s strength lies in Van der Aa’s virtuoso meshing of all those different element into a new whole. […] By directing the staging too, Van de Aa has managed to create a technically slick opera in which story, image, mise-en-place, movement, sound and music balance out to form a theatrical unity of unparalleled success. And what an achievement that this supreme technical virtuosity never results in cold abstractions. […] The instrumental accompaniment of the Asko Ensemble was technically impressive too under the meticulous direction of Otto Tausk.
— Roeland Hazendonk, de Telegraaf, 6 June 2006
Neither Hirokazu Kore-Eda nor Michel van der Aa aim for a merely emotional response. The film, as well the opera, is characterised by a media-specific type of reflection, by subtle, intelligent irony… Although Michel van der Aa claims there is unity of poetry and form in his compositions, his music decidedly goes beyond conventional ideas of opera composition. During the process of composition, he employs what might be called a photographic eye. Sounds no longer appear as part of a continuous process determined by musical drama, but rather as ‘camera shots’ – set pieces of sound which are re-used or re-structured in the further course of the work. In this procedure, electronic sounds gain particular importance as they create an additional layer of sound, which can be compared to multiple exposure photography. Michel van der Aa’s music, especially After Life, is particularly impressive for not suppressing its emotional quality within the coldly calculated test arrangement in which it appears. In this test arrangement, music throws sharp spots of sound on characters and situations… With all its artificiality, van der Aa’s music has a strongly expressive element – which is probably what the composer has in mind when he talks about ‘poetry’. Especially fascinating at the Amsterdam premiere was the seamless interlocking of all the expressive elements. For once, video footage was not used as a simple visual addition, but rather as a tantamount element of composition, along with the music and stage action.
— Gerhard Rohde, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 7 June 2006
It was at the express request of festival director Pierre Audi that Michel van der Aa directed his own opera After Life, and he did so magnificently. […] Opera, theatre and video mesh together into one massive Gesamtkunstwerk that could only have been created at the hand of one single genitor. The often perfect transition from stage to video, the synchronised tempo changes of music and image pave the way for opera of the 21st century.
— Jochem Valkenburg, NRC Handelsblad, 3 June 2006
[…] A masterly multimedia opera for a new era, which hopefully heralds many more. Van der Aa has created with After Life a spectacular new world of opera. […] Michel van der Aa’s raging music sounds beautifully crystal clear. […] The performance was flawless, with its poignant, hushed, dark ending. The tip-top cast and director (Van der Aa himself) raised the opera to a higher level. This truly fabulous new opera deserves, whatever the difficulties, to go on tour world-wide.
— Peter van der Lint, Trouw 5 June 2006
You hardly need a crystal ball to predict that the Dutch composer Michel van de Aa (36) has got a great future ahead of him. In fact that future is already under way. […] Van der Aa’s skill at combining film and operatic action is breathtaking, as is the performance of the singers (including soprano Claron McFadden!) and the musicians. In After Life, God is conspicuous by his absence, unless of course he happens to be called Michel van der Aa, who’s out there pressing all the buttons loud and clear. In this respect Van der Aa has already established himself as the forerunner of a new generation of composers who think in video as well as in audio terms. Inescapable conclusion: After Life is a masterpiece. Don’t miss it.
— Erik Voermans, het Parool, 3 June 2006
[…] After Life succeeds not so much because of its plot but because of the ingenious way its component parts are assembled. Unlike a spate of recent operas (Sophie’s Choice, Lost Highway), it is not a slavish re-telling of a classic film. Van der Aa has put together a whimsical collage of transparent layers, part documentary film, part philosophy, part feel-good fantasy narrative. Glass screens slide soundlessly across the brand new Muziekgebouw’s futuristic stage, mountains of junk-shop furniture slip surreally past, projected images interact with live singers so convincingly that it becomes hard to tell real and virtual apart. Van der Aa, stage director and mastermind as well as composer, pushes the boundaries of all of his media. This is the Gesamtkunst of the future. […] This is a hundred minutes of thought-provoking entertainment, superbly realized by a top-notch team. Otto Tausk conducts the disciplined Asko Ensemble, and the cast, from a formidably authoritative Chief of limbo from Claron McFadden to an engagingly passionate Aiden from Roderick Williams, is an evenly-matched ensemble of excellence. ***** [FIVE STARS]
— Shirley Apthorp, Financial Times, 7 June 2006
Images and operatic action combine in surprising ways in Michel van der Aa’s After Life. […] The dead (who figure both on video and in the flesh in this opera) were interviewed by Van der Aa himself about the most decisive moments in their lives. The documentary interviews which result are terribly moving.[…] They alternate with the music and are projected onto huge screens and subsequently integrated into the theatrical and musical compositions. As the opera evolves, the cool cinematic observations give rise to more and more emotional outpourings. When the guides become personally involved in the defining moments of the dead, emotions become entangled poignantly.
— Willem Bruls, De Standaard, 6 June 2006
2 sopranos, 1 mezzo-soprano, 1 alto, 2 baritones
ob, cl (B-flat), b.cl, trp (in C), tb
pos. organ/ harpsichord
2 video projections
soundtrack , 4 channels
First performance 02 June 2006, De Nederlandse Opera ASKO ensemble, cond. Otto Tausk
Commissioned by De Nederlandse Opera, Fonds voor de Scheppende Toonkunst
Published by Boosey & Hawkes
First Memory Aria (live). Yvette Bonner, soprano
New trailer of revised opera. Produced by Netherlands Opera.
2:46 min. | English
Excerpts and behind the scene interviews with cast and director.
10:53 min. | English
Interview by Hans Flupsen.
VPRO Television, 2009.
31:53 min. | Dutch/English
De Nederlandse Opera, ASKO Ensemble, cond. Otto Tausk
3:50 min. trailer
Michel van der Aa talks about his opera After Life
8:23 min. | English
Interview by Matthijs van Nieuwkerk.
Topic: Spaces of Blank premiere
8:56 min. | Dutch
Making of the film part of ‘After Life’.
Produced by Lex Reitsma for De Nederlandse Opera. 2006
4:46 min. | Dutch