Using the intersecting and reflecting planes of live action and video to explore the human condition, Blank Out centres on a dialogue between a man and his mother. The libretto is based upon the work and life of South African poet Ingrid Jonker. A deeply human story, Blank Out uses innovative techniques of interactive 3D film and electronic music to consider memory and the way in which people reconstruct and deal with traumatic life events.
The set of Blank Out is constructed in miniature, like an architect’s model. A 3D film acts as a backdrop, and is projected live via a camera that the singer moves around the model. As the woman moves the camera she not only changes her visual surroundings but also appears to be ‘playing’ her environment.
The impression is given to the audience of being both within and outside of an abstract country house. Musically, the text begins disjointed, but as words loop and accumulate the story of some unnamed trauma begins to emerge. As reality and the world of the model begin to blur, a man appears on screen. We discover that the woman’s words are connected to his; he is her son, and she drowned when he was a child. He is left to reconstruct the painful memories of his past.
Blank Out is a coproduction of Dutch National Opera with the Lucerne Festival, and Teatro dell’Opera di Roma.
Miah Persson & Roderick Williams
A woman, alone onstage, is lost. She sings fragmented texts, recording herself with a video camera. Her sentences gradually become complete and coherent. We learn of a devastating trauma that took place in 1976, when her son was seven years old. From the edge of the dike near their house she watched him swim, then drown. She was paralysed, unable to act.
The woman shares memories of her son while slowly building a small model house. She reconstructs and explains her relationship with her son, exploring her emotional displacement from him. As the line between reality and the world of the model begins to blur, a man appears on screen.
The man sings a duet with the woman’s recording from earlier in the opera, filling out her story of that day in 1976. He also experienced a trauma: the woman on stage is his mother, who died that day – she drowned saving his life.
In taking us back to the accident, the man adds a new perspective to the events. We realise the woman on stage is a reconstruction of his memory. They sing together, dance together. As the piece builds to a climax, the woman drowns in her own words while the man desperately clings to his treasured memories.
The woman disappears from stage. The man mourns her.
Blank Out’s text and characters include elements by the South African poet Ingrid Jonker. The story, however, is not biographical.
Woman – Miah Persson
Man – Roderick Williams (film)
Nederlands Kamerkoor (film)
Klaas Stok – conductor
Director, concept – Michel van der Aa
Dramaturge – Sophie Motley
Lighting – Floriaan Ganzevoort
Production development – Frank van der Weij
Movement advice – Thom Stuart
Director of photography – Joost Rietdijk
Film producer – Melvin Kant, William Griffioen
“[…] the libretto based on work by the South African poetess Ingrid Jonker which, in fluctuating between hermeticism and plain language, proves to be an ideal foundation for Van der Aa’s own musical mix of sleep and wakefulness, floating lyricism and concrete angularity.
Van der Aa’s music is frequently not only unusually beautiful, it also succeeds in presenting a highly individual blend of a cappella choral music, soundtrack, lyrical vocal lines and thumping techno as a natural amalgam. But eclectic? Van der Aa’s versatility is our real musical world. Miah Persson, the only live character on stage, has with her clear treble and motherly alto a voice to love and it imparts additional depth to the drama. Roderick Williams sings outstandingly and is convincing in the spoken flashbacks. These semi-documentary passages have additional value because they bring the story close by, whereas opera often uses artifice as an outlet for our own emotional engagement. After 75 minutes one is left with questions that both tease and please. All you can be certain of is your own curiosity: about Van der Aa’s next work.”
— ★★★★ NRC, Mischa Spel, 22-3-2016
“(Van der Aa) mixes eighties beats and techno, the clear voices of the soloists and the Nederlands Kamerkoor in an amazingly slick combination. And, as always, this creative craftsman juggles with time perception and plot. Van der Aa accurately intertwines the actions and plays with the boundary between screen and stage to within a millimetre. The fact that he not only writes the music but also provides a libretto and then produces the whole is no longer news. Van der Aa is going from strength to strength and is refining his theatrical palette on the firm foundation of his musical idiom. Opera Forward!”
— ★★★★ Trouw, Frederike Berntsen, 22-3-2016
“Blank Out is more than a technical feat. It is a fascinating mixture of film, music and acting. Commissioned by De Nationale Opera, Blank Out is so cleverly constructed that halfway through you forget you’re watching a 3-D opera. Film, music, acting: everything blends seamlessly together. Pure magic: a soprano sings a duet with herself and with a baritone who is not even actually on stage. The former recalls the drowning of her seven-year-old son, whilst the latter remembers how his mother drowned in an attempt to save his life. During the performance the two realities continually enter into a dialogue with each other and give the opera depth.
In doing so Van der Aa creates tension between physical and digital reality and creatively investigates a variety of forms of interaction. What you see and what you hear have enormous poetic and suggestive power […] the intriguing Van der Aa sound: a kaleidoscopic assortment of occasionally Gregorian-esque vocal music, pop music and sounds such as the knocking of stones and grinding gravel. Van der Aa has written a wonderful, colourful score sublimely performed by the singers of the Nederlands Kamerkoor and the two soloists (Miah Persson and Roderick Williams).”
— ★★★★ Theaterkrant, Oswin Schneeweisz, 20-3-2016
“Breathtaking ‘Blank Out’ […] As an artist, Van der Aa thrives at the intersection of music, film, and stage theatre, and his chamber opera Blank Out is possibly his most remarkable combination of live action and video projections to date. […] an astonishing narrative inspired by the life and works of South African poet Ingrid Jonker. […] Every element of this production was stunning. As the woman, Katherine Manley not only held the responsibility of sustaining the action on stage entirely by herself, but she was also tasked with moving video equipment, manipulating props, and performing alongside fixed, pre-recorded sound and film. In addition to mastering these technical challenges, she gave a riveting and exceptionally precise vocal performance. Roderick Williams’ powerful yet sensitive baritone was as impressionable on film as the action on the stage. Van der Aa’s libretto masterfully weaves together the poetry of Ingrid Jonker and his own texts, and the score successfully reflects both atmosphere and time. […] a must-see production.”
— I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, Amanda Cook, 24.2.2017
“Perhaps, as so often, the composer-producer-librettist has drawn from the unfathomable source of a multi-interpretable dream of primal fears perceived consciously or otherwise. In any case the result is highly enjoyable, magical music and images without our fully understanding what exactly it’s all about […] In Blank Out Van der Aa has explored the boundaries of what is technically possible. Persson films herself on stage and her images blend with earlier film material of Williams or a cottage on the dike. The effect is quite often enchanting. The choral music is frequently sonorous, the electronics produce wonderful combinations of sounds or sometimes functional rasping and clicking and, at the best moments, the vocal parts are highly lyrical […]”
— ★★★★ Het Parool, Erik Voermans, 21-3-2016
“Michel van der Aa surpasses himself in the opera Blank Out. This multimedia specialist once again deals with life and death, youth and old age, here and in the hereafter. In so doing he seems to be coming closer and closer to the crux of what he really wants to say and, in this impeccable production, he has surpassed himself. We see her character split with an astonishing sense of naturalness into two and even three, and enter into a “dialogue” with herself and then her child (the baritone Roderick Williams), who only appears in the film. Persson sings her graceful, sweeping lines with flawless intonation and commitment and Williams, who previously appeared in After Life and Sunken Garden, responds in kind.
In addition to Persson’s and Williams’ outstanding performances, there is a star role for the Nederlands Kamerkoor which, on the soundtrack, alternates Renaissance-like polyphonic melismas with swinging snatches of barbershop harmony.
Quite moving is when mother and son “dance” together after she has “saved” him from a boiling stream of lava – red-lit aluminium foil which she pulls onto the stage from under his film bench. […] Impeccable and enthralling opera in which, more than ever before, Van der Aa’s reveals a keen sense of lyricism and emotional eloquence.”
— Cultureelpersbureau, Thea Derks, 21-3-2016
“Michel van der Aa’s new opera, featuring video, 3D effects and passages of prerecorded music, is compellingly performed by Miah Persson and Roderick Williams.
The English text – Van der Aa’s own, incorporating extracts from poems by the South African poet Ingrid Jonker, who drowned herself at the age of 31 – is sung in long, smoothly contoured lines that constantly return to the same melodic shapes. Persson’s live singing combines with replayed loops of herself on film to create haunting ensembles, and at the opera’s climax her lines are counterpointed with those of Williams on film too, each character locked into his or her own sense of reality.
Williams sings with his usual intelligence and compelling sincerity on the film, while the live performance is an astonishing tour de force for Persson, meticulous in its detail, and perfectly controlled. Though enigmatic and at times mystifying, the whole piece becomes a wonderfully fluent and effective piece of music theatre.”
— ★★★★ The Guardian, Andrew Clements, 22-3-2016
“Some have called it a historic world premiere and that may well be true. With his performance of Blank Out Michel van der Aa has in any case created an opera that in many ways considerably pushes the boundaries of the genre. The Swedish soprano Miah Persson not only has the vocal talent to grab her audience by the throat with an infusion of suspense, her acting also draws it into an enthralling universe of emotions. Her adult son’s appearance on film makes the feeling that the two characters are each in a different world breathtakingly perceptible.”
— Noordhollands Dagblad, Hans Visser, 22-3-2016
“Composer Michel van der Aa continues to break with tradition, mixing disciplines and media to create uniquely structured works.[…] Blank Out does not hijack emotions in the way it triggers the senses. Presumably, its primary intention is not to explore character, but to provide a sensory experience of memory and the physical immanence of tragedy. In this it succeeds brilliantly.”
— Bachtrack, Jenny Camilleri, 25-03-2016
In Van der Aa’s Blank Out the Swedish soprano Miah Persson gives a compelling performance that includes a cappella, later singing duets and trios with her own alter egos on film. Fascinating, characteristic Van der Aa music which, more than usually, draws from a more lyrical spring for this story of loss and mourning.
— Trouw, Peter van der Lint, 26-03-2016
“As van der Aa’s music progresses the soprano’s voices expands into recorded singing of the Netherlands Chamber Choir. The harmonies are pretty simple, strong and beautiful. Electronic effects and electronic rhythms provide additional levels of music. […] the libretto skillfully utilizes the texts of the South African poet Ingrid Jonker. […] Blank Out is worth checking out, as well as for classical and modern music lovers and for lovers of IDM (intellectual dance music) instead of EDM. […] Soprano Katherine Manley sang and performed very touchingly. The Netherlands chamber choir sung brilliantly and Roderick Williams did a great job.”
— Helsingin Sanomat, Vesa Sirén, 6-2-2017
3D film projection, live and pre-recorded
First performance 20 March 2016, Dutch National Opera
Miah Persson, soprano. Roderick Williams, Baritone
Commissioned by Nationale Opera, Lucerne Festival, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. With financial support of Nederlands Kamerkoor, Ammodo, Fonds Podiumkunsten, Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst
Published by Boosey & Hawkes
Miah Persson, Roderick Williams, Nederlands Kamerkoor
3:48 min. trailer
Roderick Williams, Nederlands Kamerkoor
Libretto after Ingrid Jonker
5:11 min. excerpt
Miah Persson, Roderick Williams, Nederlands Kamerkoor
Libretto after Ingrid Jonker
1:17 min. teaser