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Michel van der Aa discusses his new 3D film opera, a collaboration with novelist David Mitchell.

Sunken Garden is your first work to use 3D film – how has your relationship with the medium developed?

I’ve kept abreast of developments in 3D technology but I didn’t set out to create a 3D opera. It was only when the scenario for Sunken Garden evolved that it became clear that 3D would be locked into the DNA of the libretto. The main protagonist in the story is a film-maker who is producing a documentary about a series of missing persons. When his project gathers funding from a mysterious patroness of the arts, he has the financial resources to explore the most cutting edge technology, inevitably 3D.

I’ve been very careful that the 3D elements remain functional and fully integrated with the requirements of the drama, so the first part is purely in 2D and it is only in the second part, when we find ourselves in the sunken garden, that the 3D comes into play. It creates a new dimension here – a fictional space with a heightened level of interaction between the live performers, the physical stageset and the 3D film.

Who have been the most inspirational models for you in the worlds of music or film?

Musically it would be a combination of Bach, Stravinsky, Ligeti, Radiohead, dance music and much else. For the new opera’s visual world I’ve responded particularly to the dark, bizarre feel of David Lynch’s films and Kobo Abe’s books. However, I’m also interested in a more humanist side that you can see in the documentary style of After Life and The Book of Disquiet, which is perhaps closer to Michael Haneke whose films such as the recent Amour I admire. I like their naturalism and gently touching approach which add up to something much more powerful. Overall I guess I’d be classed as an omnivore as I take in everything, from blockbuster to arthouse.

How did your ideas for the visual world develop alongside the music?

For me the visual framework comes very early in the process. The film script was created alongside the musical composition so they co-existed from the onset. Similarly there were abstract visual ideas that I knew would be central, even before my first meeting with librettist David Mitchell and before the text came into being. An early stage of our collaboration was deciding which aspects would exist within the film and which would be communicated by the sung or spoken text.

What made you think that David Mitchell would be an ideal librettist for the project?

I’d read Cloud Atlas and all his other books and was a great fan. I loved his formal approach, his sense of theatre, and his skill at crossing genres and creating interesting and diverse dialogue. When we first made contact I discovered he’d seen my earlier opera After Life and liked it. I wasn’t expecting him to be interested in writing a libretto but learnt he was already engaged in thinking how text could be combined with music on stage. So, there were a lot of surprising synchronicities here, and when we finally met in person we immediately clicked.

How did you and David Mitchell develop the libretto?

We had about 10 meetings and I found David a genuinely open-minded partner who was happy to allow me great freedom and space for the staging. We started off trying to define what for us makes a good libretto, and how it could exist on a number of poetic levels. For instance some conversational texts work better spoken, whereas other intimate texts cry out to be sung. Then we defined the subject matter by agreeing what we would like to see more of on stage, something Noir-ish, which could work more effectively than usual thanks to the planned film. The storyline and characters grew organically, and then the text was boiled down to its essentials – what David calls “thickening the gravy”.

Mitchell has a distinctive story-telling style of splintered narratives and elusive common links. Is this true of the new opera?

Yes. There are three inter-related levels in Sunken Garden. In simplest terms the opera is a whodunit investigating the disappearances, what happened to the missing persons and solving the mystery of who was behind the crime. The second level deals with the film-maker Toby and the technical process of making the film which opens and closes the opera. The third is more abstract and inhabits the dreamlike occult world of the sunken garden, pitched between life and death.

Is there a similar splintering in the roles of the singers on and off film?

There are three ‘live’ singers on stage, a baritone and two sopranos, and two singers on film plus actors and extras. I decided that the characters shouldn’t cross from one medium to the other as in some of my earlier stageworks, not only for practical reasons, but because with 3D the live singers can be integrated inside the visual envelope in a way that wasn’t possible before. So it is a compact cast, allowing more space for character development through arias than was possible in After Life. When we reach the sunken garden my aim was that we understand the characters and already care about them.

What creative challenges and discoveries have you made working on the new opera?

It has stretched me in some interesting ways, partly due to the greater freedom the storyline offered me. The musical style has had to range more widely than in any of my earlier pieces, from contemporary music sounds through to pop songs for the female singer on film. There are choruses and refrains in some of her music, you can hear dance beats on the electronic soundtrack, and I’ve used analogue synthesizers within the ensemble for the first time. Generally the idiom is more direct and overtly melodic, closer to Spaces of Blank and Up-close than my earlier music, offering the possibility to reach out to a broader audience.

Michel van der Aa
Sunken Garden
film opera (2011-12) 110’
Libretto by David Mitchell (E)

2S,Bar; cl.bcl—tpt.trbn—analogue synthesizers—perc—strings
4 channel soundtrack; 2D and 3D film

12-13,15-20 April 2013 (world premiere)
Barbican Theatre, London
English National Opera/André de Ridder

3-4,6-9 June 2013 (Dutch premiere)
Stadsschouwburg, Holland Festival
Amsterdam Sinfonietta/André de Ridder

Future performances at:
Toronto Luminato Festival and Opéra de Lyon

>  Further information on Work: Sunken Garden

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