High tech meets high art in a 3-D opera

As a boy soprano in the youth opera company that his parents ran in their small town, the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa once accompanied his father to the clockmaker who was painting a set for them. What he saw, he recalled recently, was revelatory.

“I will never forget,” Mr. van der Aa said, “that he had this fan onto which he had added pieces of crepe paper and put red light under it. And he turned on the light and, suddenly, there was a fire. I realized that with these very simple means, you can do something incredibly poetic.”

If his inspiration to become a theater artist arose from this encounter with stagecraft simplicity, Mr. van der Aa, 47, has made his career embracing the very opposite. Though he has written chamber and orchestral pieces, he has become best known in opera. And to this already multifaceted art form, he has added high-tech experiments in streaming video and 3-D film and retro elements like reel-to-reel tape recordings, resulting in sequences like duets that require an onstage singer to harmonize with another artist, who is inside a recorded movie.

Mr. van der Aa’s latest opera, “Blank Out,” which stars the soprano Miah Persson (live onstage) and the baritone Roderick Williams (in a simultaneously projected 3-D film, which the audience watches through glasses), will be at the Park Avenue Armory from Thursday to Sept. 27, after critically successful runs here in Amsterdam and in Rome; Beijing; Helsinki; Hannover, Germany; and Lucerne, Switzerland.

Blank Out Armory
Roderick Williams, Miah Persson

The opera is loosely based on the life and work of the South African poet Ingrid Jonker (1933-65). Because she wrote in Afrikaans, which is similar to Dutch, translations of her work were made available in the Netherlands before they reached other parts of the world, and Mr. van der Aa read them as a young man. The opera’s narrative includes inspiration from Mr. van der Aa’s own memories, but Jonker’s poems recur throughout, both in their entirety and as fragments.

In the enigmatic work, which leaves some of its narrative threads undone at the end, Ms. Persson plays a mother remembering the tragic drowning of her son, while Mr. Williams, in the film, is a son remembering the drowning of his mother. Replayed loops of Ms. Persson’s voice join her live sounds; she often sings together with Mr. Williams, though they are divided by time, space and medium. It’s a dark tale told in Mr. van der Aa’s characteristic style, a genre-bending amalgam of pop, electronica and ambient elements, like the scratching sound of cassette tapes.

“A whole generation of listeners have Spotify playlists that move from Bach to Beyoncé, from Radiohead to Ligeti,” he said. “I think these genre lines don’t exist anymore for many young listeners and also not for me, and it feels very artificial to keep them in my work. The same is true with visual culture: We’re surrounded by technology, and it’s in the DNA of our time, so it would be very strange to not use it in my work.”

“Blank Out” is Mr. van der Aa’s second foray into combining 3-D elements with opera, after a 2013 collaboration with the British novelist David Mitchell, “Sunken Garden,” which some critics found more satisfying technically than musically. (He has continued to tweak the work and will present what he calls the “2.0 version” in March at the Dallas Opera.) The critic Andrew Clemens wrote in The Guardian that “Blank Out” was, by comparison, “far more understated and effective,” and listed it as one of his top classical music events of last year.

“The themes he uses are timeless, inspired by literature, associative and multilayered,” said Pierre Audi, the impresario who originally commissioned the new work for Dutch National Opera and is now the Park Avenue Armory’s artistic director. “He wasn’t really following the path of a conventional composer, and the risks he was taking from early on were worth supporting.”

Indeed, Mr. van der Aa’s path has been unusual. Before studying composition, he trained as a recording engineer at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, completed a course in film directing at the New York Film Academy and participated in the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab. Mr. Audi said that he was particularly taken by Mr. Van der Aa’s ability to bring film into opera.

“The way Michel does it is to use film as part of the composition,” Mr. Audi said, “so that the music is also what you see, and that’s very beautiful and unusual. You can’t expect composers to also be good filmmakers, but Michel has taken the time to develop himself as a filmmaker, and so he can use that tool to compose music which is also for the eye. I think there’s a lot of potential for what he’s invented.”

But Mr. van der Aa made clear that the intricacy of the presentation of his operas was not an end in itself.

“The opera is not about technology,” he said. “It’s about loss, about generations and about these larger life themes. It’s using a different vocabulary to express them.”

— New York Times, Nina Siegal, September 2017