Michel van der Aa’s opera, After Life, opened the Holland Festival 2006. The composer discusses the work and its origins in a remarkable film.
What drew you to Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s film After Life?
When I first saw the film it made an incredible impression on me and I knew it was a true masterpiece. So when I was asked to write a new work for the Netherlands Opera it was clear that this had to be my subject. Although the basis of the film is very simple it touched me deeply and raised one of the biggest questions at the heart of humanity: “What is the defining moment of your life?” A group of people who have recently died are asked this question at a way station in transit to heaven. Their key moment is filmed and they view a screening, reliving the experience, before disappearing to eternity.
You share with Kore-Eda interests in the relationship between narrative action and documentary film footage. How is this explored in the opera?
One of the things that really appealed to me in Kore-Eda’s film was its focus on real life stories. This set me thinking about how to adapt this in stage terms, and led me to introduce a new realistic layer of my own. I interviewed 20 people and filmed the response when I asked them about their defining moment. I selected six of these interviews, and four of these appear on screen during the opera, and the material of two further interviews is sung on stage.
These fit with the core narrative from the film, about the old man Mr Walter reviewing his seemingly humdrum life with the help of his young guide Aiden.
Your use of multiple perspectives can seem complex. How should the audience best approach this?
I’ve tried to recapture the simplicity of the original film and make the relationship between live action and video footage clear, even when the same characters appear on stage and on screen. That said, I’ve avoided a rigid divide, allowing the two media to flow seamlessly into each other. I’ve extended the multi-media techniques developed in my chamber opera One, and we’re using screens that can function either as transparent glass or as a surface for projection, so that the live characters can literally move from stage to screen. Everything leads towards the closing scene where the defining memories are screened using 8mm film, almost like a surreal home movie. For the audience it explains what has gone before and hopefully provides an intimate yet powerful ending.
As the characters retell events from their lives can there be a contradiction between memory and truth?
This is an area that really interests me – how our own memories or those of others build up our idea of ‘truth’. In the opera the relationship between Mr Walter and Aiden develops in an unexpected way, as they discover they have a shared memory.
After Life, Roderick Williams
Some events stick indelibly in our mind as our memory is replayed and subtly adjusted and seem true today, whereas others are forgotten or hidden, and are only triggered by an external stimulus. One of the characters, Ilana, recognises a school chair and a memory floods back to her. But she cannot choose her defining moment and has to join the staff at the way station in limbo.
How does your music recreate memories?
In many of my pieces I recreate musical moments that have already passed, for instance in the Here trilogy where the singer makes real-time recordings with a cassette recorder, echoing them back to the ensemble and confronting the ‘now’ with a sampled past. I’ve built on these techniques in the opera which is so concerned with memory, encouraging me to mess with time in an interesting way. The past can be an alter ego that challenges the present – it’s a way to create polyphony and multiple time lines, providing cyclic structures which complement the linear narrative.
How do you approach text and vocal line?
The characters are real people and need to communicate the text in a natural way so I wanted a vocal style that was as simple and down to earth as possible. The vocal lines are different to those in One, being more syllabic and less fragmented. I have however tried to portray the different characters by vocal means, for instance Ilana is energetic and edgy, whereas the helper Sarah is more vulnerable, open and lyrical. The elderly Mr Walter struggles to remember and his line sometimes jumps between styles. Overall, though, the singing lines avoid exaggeration, and in that sense the performance technique is closer to baroque music than to Romantic rhetoric.
What is your vision of what opera could or should be?
I think I am more positive about the future of opera than many of my composing colleagues, because I like the way it fuses different artforms. It matches my way of working, thinking of text, music, video and stage direction at the same time. This may seem a lot to handle on my own, but I still benefit from collaborating with performers, conductor and designer, so I can bounce ideas off them. I like opera that can draw you in close, which has an intimacy, far removed from traditional grand opera. The drama can be just as powerful, even when it deals with ordinary people. This is the operatic area I want to explore, finding new angles and stretching the vocabulary.
— David Allenby, Quarternotes