Live Review: Sunken Garden @ Barbican Theatre

A resounding disappointment from a composer/director whose previous ‘multimedia’ musical works have been frequently fascinating. Rather than considering the inherent musico-theatrical possibilities of its dazzling 3D video technology, the whole opera seems to have been retro-fitted around these projections in the most painfully prosaic way, and in doing so falls into pretty much every one of the standard opera traps.

Before I rip into it any further, I should say that I did feel a moment of overwhelming emotion, and even shed a tear, towards the end of Michel van der Aa’s new opera Sunken Garden. It was at the end of the second ‘film aria’ featuring the missing girl, the circumstances of whose disappearance is at the centre of the opera’s ‘occult mystery’, Amber (Kate Miller-Heidke). Specifically, it was the moment at which the music from the first of Amber’s ‘film arias’ returns, with its synth progression transferred to the orchestra. Here’s the music, entitled ‘Slipping out of Mirrors’, in its initial permutation:

These two ‘film arias’ – along with another ‘film aria’ featuring the other absent subject of the opera’s ‘mystery’ narrative: Simon (Jonathan McGovern) – certainly provided the best musical moments of the piece. On reflection, much of the emotion that I felt on the return of the ‘Dream Music’ was the result of sheer relief. Considering how much I admire Michel van der Aa, and how frustrated I was by pretty much every aspect of this opera, it was a small vindication of my previous opinion that he’d had the good sense to reprise this one successful musical event – the only real ‘event’ of the opera, as far I was concerned – and to allow its gorgeous chord progression to permeate into the orchestra. It was the moment that I was waiting for throughout the piece, the satisfaction of a very large-scale psychostructural desire on my part, hence the incredible relief, the alleviation of tension, and the resulting ambivalent tear.

The film aria stood out so much for me because it hinted at everything that the opera as a whole was lacking. It stood out in the following ways:

  • It was the first moment in which music seemed to have an actual purpose or role in the piece. Or, to put it another way, it was the first moment at which the decision that this story/staging should become an ‘opera’ sort of made some kind of sense. Specifically, in this case, the music fit the ‘performativity’ of the character’s self-filming, her mysterious intangibility and possible unreality, the ‘music video’ aspect of her excursion into a nightclub, and the basic scenic ‘separation’ of the projected medium (i.e., onscreen, ontape, repeatable/pauseable, separated from the diegesis through time and space (and perhaps even ‘reality’)).
  • It was the first moment in which music interacted with video (all the other video dialogue, up to that point, had been spoken and unaccompanied), and this was fundamental in an opera that was all about making films, both in its narrative (i.e., the protagonist was a documentary film maker) and in its designation, in publicity (and, presumably, conception) as a ‘multimedia’ opera involving 2D and 3D film.
  • It was the first moment of real musical interest, for me at least, and the only moment – to my mind – that music was used to clearly articulate any delineation of theme or medium or time period or character. This arose partly from the ‘Othering’ of musical elements – a non-operatic vocal timbre and wholly synthesised accompaniment – as contrasted with the tasteful but apparently meaningless electro-acoustic orchestration underlining the rest of the work.
  • It was the only moment at which the voice writing wasn’t repellently unattractive and arbitrary (but in its exceptionality, it drew attention to the ugliness/aimlessness of the vocal writing throughout).
  • As a ‘performed’ aria – a kind of mystery message – it was one of the only times at which the cod-‘magic realism’ of the libretto (by novelist David Mitchell) didn’t grate too harshly.

The power of highlighting ‘performative’ modes of speech, song-forms, and disjunctions of time, space and ‘reality’, in order to revive the potential of arias as musico-dramatic ‘events’, shouldn’t be underestimated. These can provide a sense of structure to the whole work, both through time and between media (i.e. theatre, text, music, live/recorded media), clarifying the meaning of their imposed relationship. Amber’s first ‘film aria’ was a perfect example of this.

|| multimedia as accumulation

The film aria also threw the rest of the piece into sharp relief. Sunken Garden was a perfect example of the multimedia fetish that we see a lot of in large-scale commissions these days, packing in as many different media as possible for its own sake. It may be a symptom of the age of new media marketing ‘synergy’, of maximising the effect of a campaign by maximising the number of ‘platforms’. I certainly think it’s one of the key safety net checkboxes for arts funders: it plays into the UK’s idea of its own ‘economic’ needs, the creation of lots of differentiated, specialised, ‘creative’ jobs, a sort of vague metonymy for multiculturalism and access, the ‘something for everyone’ approach. It plays into the unstoppable, late capitalist economy of infinite choice: more is more is more.

The truth is that all live musical performance is ‘multimedia’, in that it involves an audible ‘musical’ aspect and a visible ‘theatrical’ aspect (and that latter also includes movement, lighting, architecture, textiles, set-painting, etc.). More often than not, it also includes some linguistic ‘text’ aspect as well, whether through sung text or printed text, and all of these add up to the delivery of a more-or-less unified artistic meaning, as complex and ineffable as this might seem in practice. The addition of (3D) video might add another technical ‘medium’ to the mix, but it doesn’t, in itself, constitute the addition of a new sensible ‘medium’, or channel of communication. Video is merely included in the visible dimension of the work, and combines with (or takes the place of) the placement/movement of bodies, of instruments, of props, of set and of architecture. And, as part of the visible dimension of the work, it too is merely included in the multi-sensory reception of the work, consumed within a unified time and space, which ‘is’ the opera as experienced by the audience.

The most painful result of such a situation, which we can perceive in the studied responses of conservative critics and opera fans, is that the addition of such spectacular (and spectacularly redundant) video elements obscures the fact that all the elements of the work were equally redundant. It’s not a case of opera being ruined by too many bells and whistles, and certainly not that opera fundamentally cannot incorporate these kinds of new technologies (be it integrated film or integrated electronic instruments). What we have here is the far more problematic and widespread problem of opera being defined as a collection of parts rather than as a whole.

[I’m now going to flout my own principles by criticising these ‘parts’ one-by-one, rather than as a whole, in line with the standard critical practice that I denigrated in one of my recent posts. So here I am, acknowledging my own hypocrisy, but I should say first that I have reasons for doing so. The opera invites this kind of deconstruction, given the looseness with which the parts hang together conceptually/thematically (surprising considering the fact that Van der Aa fulfilled so many of the creative roles). At the same time, I want to show how the fetishised plural/combined nature of opera as ‘multimedia’ can be used to excuse the inclusion of some scandalously lacklustre individual elements, especially when glamourised with the mystifying glaze of music.]


The narrative of Sunken Garden would never be allowed to become a stage play. It wouldn’t even work as a short story or a television drama. Its banal and drama-free first half, comprised solely of the meeting between two wholly uncharacterised individuals, then gives way to a clichéd-to-the-point-of-content-free ‘final battle’ scene between generic angels and demons in a generic fantasy space, too vague to include any particularly memorable details, yet too specific and codified to have any allegorical punch. Then the unwarranted back stories rear up all at once, with their hard-wrung pathos almost offensively unsolicited and arbitrary, and finally we’re left with a soppy, quasi-‘spiritual’ finale in the thoroughly banal ‘we’re-all-meaningless-grains-of-sand-in-a-meaningless-beautiful-universe’ mode. It’s a cliché of a cliché of a story, but with unnecessary details and ‘everyday’ embellishments poured into the gap where character, content and drama should be, to give it all a sense of generic tech-magic-realism while carefully avoiding any coherent allegorical relevance to anything. (I thought for a while it was going to be about losing one’s identity online – it should have been about that – but the bizarre specificity of the demon-witch-evil-alien woman’s long-winded (yet ironically unintelligible) explanations for constructing her ‘Sunken Garden’, and the descriptions of ‘how it works’ and ‘how it can be destroyed’ obliterated even the vaguely-expressed allegorical relevance to depression or guilt.)

& :^(

The dialogue was even worse. Aside from the aforementioned reliance on everyday/vernacular details at the expense of any characterisation, and then a later fixation on meaningless sci-fi fantasy-babble about ‘energy’ and ‘portals’ and ‘infernal engines’ etc., the dialogue in the spoken interviews was embarrassing in its forced yet ineffective faux-naturalism. These film interviews weren’t just badly scripted, but they were badly acted and (scandalously) quite artlessly made, which was particularly shocking since they were supposed to be the work of the prodigious ‘experimental documentary filmmaker’ at the centre of the opera. There was nothing experimental about them, only banally framed, unconvincing stereotypes of characters reading out ‘conversational’ scripts like terrible versions of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. For an opera that relies so heavily, both in its staging and in its diegesis, on these films, it seems amazing that they couldn’t find some better actors, or at least get a more interesting or stylish filmmaker onboard. They basically constituted the only real material of the first half, since the discussions of the filmmaker and patron were so arbitrary and contentless, merely setting the scene for the promised ‘occult mystery’ which was solvable through the most rudimentary deduction (i.e. of the only two characters onstage, one of them had to be the perpetrator, and it clearly wasn’t the protagonist).

&& :^(

The music in this first half, scoring these contentless yet strangely specific conversations, seemed equally arbitrary. I usually love Van der Aa’s style – his underlying tonal language and his subtle ‘augmented reality’ use of electronic instruments – but his music did nothing until the aforementioned ‘film aria’, and the awkward vocal writing made this all the more apparent. To give an example of a conscious, purposeful use of music in an opera, I would have advocated that all the initial conversation scenes be completely unsung, until the first ‘film aria’ from Amber, the first character shown to be addressing us ‘from her absence’, or more precisely, from the sunken garden. Then, the sunken garden could be characterised as an ‘other’ domain whose characteristics, alongside 3D film visuals, include the ‘other-ness’ of singing and musical through-composition. There seemed to be absolutely no reason why these characteristics were included in the normal world of the documentary maker (and not in his films), beyond the tautological fact that ‘it’s an opera’. In turn, if these expositionary scenes had been unscored, they might have moved a lot faster, and then there might have been more room for some actual ‘mystery’ – plot twists, false leads, some kind of earlier appearance of the otherwise ridiculously arbitrary ‘Marinus’ character – before the disappointing ‘reveal’. (However, it has to be said that the music didn’t get any better when the characters actually entered the sunken garden.)

&&& :^(

And then we come to the staging itself. The singers did nothing onstage; the inexplicable dictates of naturalistic movement and dialogue, combined with the completely unnaturalistic immaterial set, meant that all they could do was stand there and pull faces and gesticulate slightly. This got a lot more awkward in the second half, when the three singers were supposedly in the sunken garden, framed by the vibrant yet static 3D scenery, and had to enact an anime-style battle with fireballs and magic energy by circling stupidly and then jumping on the spot. They looked like children playing Dragonball Z. The hyper-real sunken garden visuals themselves only retained our attention for a few minutes or so, and they hardly distracted from the impotence of the staging, whose slavish adherence to the magic realism of the text combined a total lack of any physical invention with a kind of sci-fi rigour when it came to responding to the effects in the visuals, as if we were watching the performers act in front of a very boring green screen.

|| multimedia as medium

The above video contains extracts from Michel van der Aa’s opera One. In One, as in several of his pieces, the interaction between real (live) and virtual (recorded) performers is explored, and allowed to structure the piece musically and theatrically. All of the possibilities of video editing and playback are manipulated to create particular musical effects, rhythms and textures, which are often repeated and extended in the live physical language and in the musical writing, in a dialogue with the technology. Both determining it and determined by it, pieces such as One allow aspects of recorded media’s structuring of time, representation and identity to manifest themselves aesthetically, and to abstract themselves in movement and in musical gesture.

This is what was so significantly absent from Sunken Garden. At maybe two points, the singers interact with the recorded video in a non-‘realistic’ way: when repeated images of Amber form a texture from a repeated phrase which becomes an accompaniment to a vocal line by Toby, and during a sung quintet in the garden, in which two of the characters are pre-recorded. There was one nice moment of physical symmetry when the live character of Marinus echoed a physical gesture in the film. Occasionally, the orchestra accompany recorded vocal lines, and sound-effects from the videos form a rhythmic ostinato to passages, but this should have happened constantly, throughout, since this is a piece in which the relation between live performers and video forms pretty much the only unique feature of the story and of the staging. Instead, we had the characters actually miming turning the videos on and off with remote controls, infuriatingly redundant gestures which seem to suggest that there was some trepidation as to how to integrate the video into the opera ‘realistically’.

And this played into my overall impression, coming away from the opera, that its branding as a ‘multimedia, 3D film opera’ had come first, with the big-name novelist then trying to make sense of this branding by coming up with a scenario that took it completely literally, and not only ‘explained’ the presence of the 2D video in its ‘documentary filmmaker’ set up, but also signposted the presence of 3D video in a knowing speech. What’s doubly tragic is that all this comes across as the creative team pre-empting criticism for what might seem the cynical introduction of spectacular technologies into an opera in order to attract audiences and provide easy thrills, by putting the specific technologies at the very centre of the story, resulting in a very literal use of the media themselves, and a very banal story overall.

[And, don’t get me wrong, the deconstructive signposting and self-awareness of the use of technology can be a very positive thing, counteracting the ‘narcotic’ and spectacular effects of high production opera in a powerful, Brechtian way. But this is not what happened here. The creative team seemingly wanted to have their cakes and eat them, by making an opera knowingly about spectacular stage technology yet still relying on the same technology to provide a ‘magical’ effect as fundamental to the success of the work.]

There are so many stories that could be told using these technologies, and so many ways in which they could be integrated deep into the structure of text, music and theatre, playing with ideas of repetition and looping, recurrence, fragmentation, doubles, mirrors, gaps in time and space, memories and fantasies, virtual worlds and the internet, parallel universes, simulacra and Spectacle itself, advertising, surveillance, even television and film culture/genre, if approached in a more focused way. However, Mitchell’s and Van der Aa’s refusal to engage with any of these, but to craft instead a hopelessly banal narrative from an idea of technology as mere stagecraft (projecting videos = projecting videos in someone’s living room, projecting 3D film = making a magical ‘3D’ backdrop to a necessarily magical location), follows from what was presumably the cynical imperatives of funding and audience outreach to create a ‘multimedia 3D opera’ involving a bestselling fantasy novelist. I don’t know whether it was laziness or a fear of attempting anything too ‘artsy’, which might compromise the opera’s supposed mass appeal, which led to the curious mix of terrible sci-fi and terrible Final Cut Pro zeitoper which in the end characterised Sunken Garden.

Weirdly enough, some were convinced. There were a few good reviews and clearly some positive reactions on the night. Normal Lebrecht wrote a ridiculously effusive review, calling it ‘the future of opera’. But as far as I’m concerned, anyone who thinks Sunken Garden is what opera ought to look like must have very low expectations from opera, not to mention incredibly low expectations from the acting, dialogue, vocal writing, directing and filmmaking which contribute to the delivery of the overall event which is opera. Opera can, and will, be so much better, and do so much more, but we have to start taking it seriously rather than treating it as some kind of weird risk-management project: no matter how many people actually come to these things, it’s still always treated as the careful balancing of ‘populist’ and ‘legitimate’ signifiers imposed additively on a model which was ‘perfected’ over a hundred years ago, with no-one giving a coherent explanation as to why this elusive target audience would rather see a Van der Aa opera than a Verdi opera in the first place.

|| snorkelling in the morass of opera

If there wasn’t a word for ‘opera’, Sunken Garden wouldn’t make sense. It would be just wholly terrible, incomprehensibly bad compared to all theatre, contemporary music and music video, totally incoherent. The only thing that allows us to comprehend it is the fact that it is presented as an opera, and ‘operas’ we will always forgive (especially if the music is well sung and reasonably inoffensive) because we don’t expect operas to be well-staged, or to have meaningful libretti that say anything unclichéd about our lives and the world we live in, or even to make a unique statement and aim to express some unique truth. We expect next to nothing from opera, and we think it’s because we love it so much – we love the idea of singing emotions and of all the art works coming together and of the canons and the roles and big names – but actually it’s because we condescendingly think of it as something other than everything, as some folk tradition: quaint and camp and garish and tastelessly spectacular and meaningless and never-changing, with quaint rules about who can sing what and how, and league tables of composers, conductors and recordings that we can learn and show off.

The way that many opera fans talk about opera productions reminds me of the way Dr Who obsessives talk about new Dr Who series, or even Star Wars fans discussing fan fiction on the internet. The original canon is reified to the point of meaninglessness, becoming a swarm of details, dates, facts and names which give pleasure in their multiplicity as well as in their bounded knowability. At the same time, new efforts can only ever be perceived as variations on a standardised model (even if they vary in the extreme – if they’re very ‘unlike’ traditional opera – they’re still measured against it, rather than as a new thing). Making new operas, like making new productions of old operas, is a way of prolonging the core authority of all the old operas – of ‘opera’ in its bounded plurality – through reference. We can watch them and then use them as a discursive resource to reflect back upon the old operas that we know and that are important: which is it similar to, which does it borrow from, which does it pale in comparison to, etc. Of course, the same is also possible with theatre or contemporary music. New operas just aren’t common or accessible enough that we can relate them to each other, but more to the point, they don’t seem very interested in trying to mean anything on their own.

So we have Sunken Garden which, without its music, would surely be one of the most incoherent, badly scripted, acted and directed plays ever put on at the Barbican, but with its (pointless and often awkward) music, becomes ‘the first genuine 21st-century opera’ (Norman Lebrecht), showing just how little we expect from opera, and how easy it should be to do something incredible with it.

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One Response to Live Review: Sunken Garden @ Barbican Theatre

  1. Pingback: Two More Aphorisms for the Future of Opera |

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