The gesamtkunstwerk translated into the present day

Michel van der Aa and His Chamber Opera Blank Out. The Gesamtkunstwerk Translated into the Present Day.

An Organic Whole
Even in Richard Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk – the “total work of art” – there is no lack of precedents. In the three treatises he wrote about art while living in Zurich – Art and Revolution, The Art Work of the Future, and Opera and Drama – Wagner refers to Attic tragedy with its cult of Dionysus as an early ideal. He saw it to represent the unity of myth, action, scenic presentation, and musical realization for which he was striving. Though this unity, in Wagner’s view, had been lost through Christianity, the instrumental music of Romanticism succeeded in making itself directly and emotionally comprehensible to listeners. Music as an “emotional signpost”: it was with this power that Wagner posited creating a through-composed, “organic whole.” In other words, a Gesamtkunstwerk, in which mime and gesture, set design, and lighting are also clearly integral components.
It is in these contexts that the work of Michel van der Aa should be understood. The Dutch artist is not afraid to use innovations involving media. In 2015’s The Book of Sand, van der Aa created a digital, interactive vocal cycle by relying on the Internet and smartphone apps. And in the chamber opera Blank Out, which had its world premiere in March 2016 in Amsterdam, he works with 3D technology.

Everything revolves around a traumatic event that is viewed and narrated from different angles. The story is based on the life and work of the South African poet Ingrid Jonker, who committed suicide in 1965 by drowning at a beach near Cape Town. A puzzle is introduced, whose separate components come to make sense only through this traumatic event. At first a woman appears, played by the soprano and the only live performer on stage in this opera. She appears distraught, initially singing only fragments of text, until a coherent whole gradually emerges, which is her story. There is a flashback to 1976, when her son is seven years old. Looking out from her house, which is situated on a dike, she watches him swimming. Suddenly he sinks. She freezes, staring in shock and unable to do anything. On the stage, the woman puts together a small model of the house from that time. She even arranges its miniature furniture as it used to be.

Seeming or Being? Virtual Reality
It seems as though this woman is putting together her own, deeply personal reality: her memory, her identity. A small camera projects her construction of the small model onto a screen live, in real time. Meanwhile, the woman reflects on her relationship with her son as she seems to process this loss and her emotional detachment from him. Or is it all just virtual reality, in which being and seeming become blurred? In fact, reality and the miniature world of the model seem increasingly to rub up against each other, until a second protagonist emerges: a man. He also sings and performs,

but not as a live performer, since he appears only on the screen. This man’s trauma also dates back to 1976. His mother has drowned while trying to save him. He was seven years old at the time, and the woman on the stage is his mother. His memory fills out the gaps in the story, and the result is all the more disturbing because it now becomes clear that the woman on the stage, the single “genuine” live performer in the work, basically does not exist. She is nothing more than a reconstruction of the memory of this man who, for his part, does not actually appear on the stage but who has only been pre-recorded and transmitted via a screen. The puzzle is now complete, resulting in the simultaneous reality and volition of Blank Out.

That is, van der Aa’s opera continually shifts between perception and reality, constantly treading the fine line between the real world and fiction, the boundaries between them being fluid. It is not only the material that plays with these different levels, shuttling between phantasmagoric abstraction and concrete narrative: the technical aspects and the music, especially the three-dimensional technology, are also to be understood in this sense as clear metaphors. In doing so, the theatrical is at work even before the piece actually begins: in other words, in the moment when the audience members put on their 3D glasses. These are distributed beforehand to the public and are a key tool for the piece: indeed, they are absolutely indispensable to be able to understand Blank Out overall. And this holds true beyond the 3D film inserts themselves.

“Even when the 3D film is not running, the audience members are still wearing the 3D glasses,” van der Aa explains. “Even the live singer is observed through these glasses, and as a result, you see the ‘real’ scenes in a different way. That is very interesting psychologically, because it simultaneously interprets reality. You ask yourself, what is it you are actually seeing right now: is that real or not?” For van der Aa, the use of technology in general is not a formal goal in and of itself but a “tool for narrating.” He says this involves “new perspectives of perception” and that it can be transferred to “our reality”: “We observe ourselves on Facebook and other social media, and so we have different versions of ourselves in circulation – on our screens and monitors. That is a way life gets filtered, just as with the 3D glasses.”

Lost Identities
So in Blank Out the “real” woman on the stage and the “unreal” man on the screen sing and dance together in a struggle for identity and reality, while the events continue to intensify. The woman on the stage is seen to drown in her own words, whereas the projected man desperately celebrates the cult of memory. He can and will not let go. At the end, the woman vanishes, sinks, dissolves. The man in the 3D film alone remains behind, grieving over this memory. This is precisely an ageless theme of theater: the hero who observes himself and the world from different angles. It involves the invention of or the search for identity, and this theme runs through Michel van der Aa’s oeuvre like a leitmotif — and a motif of sorrow.

Michel van der Aa not only pursues the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk in music theater but also translates it into instrumental music. This is why some of his instrumental works come across as being staged, whether there’s a (spatial-)acoustic and/or a performative dimension. In addition, the natural instrumental sound is often enhanced or defamiliarized with electronics (either taped or live). For van der Aa, electro-acoustics and the use of technology in general provide a modern counterpoint to music. Despite his clearly multidisciplinary approach, Michel van der Aa nevertheless views himself first and foremost as a composer. “I come from music, and I also began as a ‘pure composer,’” he says. “That’s the world I come from, but over time I came to realize that I can no longer make only music: that there are also visual approaches.”

Michel van der Aa points out that there are things he wants to narrate for which music and sonic action by themselves no longer would have sufficed. At first he integrated spatial concepts and performative elements into his scores, until he took up an additional course of study at the New York Film Academy in 2002, which he then supplemented with courses in stage direction in 2007. One of the first results of his study of film was the chamber opera One from 2003, which he created with the soprano Barbara Hannigan. Another important work that laid the ground for Blank Out was the 3D opera Sunken Garden from 2011-2013, which featured van der Aa’s first 3D film. His film language is inspired by David Lynch, as well as by Andrei Tarkovsky, Bill Viola, and the Danish group Dogme 95. Additional musical influences include pop, jazz, alternative rock by Radiohead, Johann Sebastian Bach, and György Ligeti, along with the early electro-acoustic works of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Poetic Balance
The spherical, noise-like sonorities from the electronic part in Blank Out serve to bring out the rather catchy music. Van der Aa himself speaks of a “dark world”: “A lot sounds like a pop song, and the electronic sounds underscore

Blank Out Lucerne
Miah Persson, Roderick Williams

this aesthetic.” By contrast, the prerecorded choral writing that almost resembles Bach chorales forms a kind of universal voice. “For me, art must always find a balance between form and structure, content and human poetry: emotion. When only one side comes to the fore, I personally feel that to be wrong. Bach is for me the master of this balance. He commands it consummately, to perfection. His music is in fact timeless, and I am always seeking this balance. For me the greatest compliment is when people who have attended a performance later say they hadn’t noticed the technology.”

— Marco Frei, August 2017

Translation by Thomas May for Park Avenue Armory. With kind permission from the Lucerne Festival