In July, when the Mason Bates opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs was classical-music journalism’s premier topic of conversation, the Washington Post critic Anne Midgette wrote a substantive, passionate essay arguing that if opera aspires to attain the present-day potency and relevance that television now commands, it first must raise its literary and dramatic standards.
“When was the last time you came out of a new opera — or ANY opera — feeling that you had had a vital, exciting dramatic experience?” Midgette inquired. “When was the last time you felt you had lost yourself in another world?… [T]hose of us who love opera are conditioned to make allowances for it.”
I’d posed a similar question in 2012, in my review for The New York Times of David T. Little’s opera Dog Days: “Think about it: When was the last time a new opera got under your skin the way an Edward Albee play does?”
To anyone for whom those questions resonate, a bit of urgent advice: Do not missBlank Out, the idiosyncratic, haunting, and deeply moving opera by the Dutch composer and filmmaker Michel van der Aa, running through Sept. 27 at the Park Avenue Armory.
The story, based loosely on the life and writings of the South African poet Ingrid Jonker, centers around an isolated, solitary woman consumed with grief and guilt over the accidental drowning death of her seven-year-old son. Miah Persson, a Swedish soprano of shimmering tone, ample nuance, and crystalline diction, embodies the role with beauty and gravitas. She works on a mostly bare platform at the heart of the cavernous Armory, moving with burdened hesitation or airy ease by turns. An oversize screen behind Persson holds images of exterior and interior settings, some of which she manipulates herself using miniature models and a camera on tracks, onstage in full view.
Occasionally a boy flits in and out of view onscreen as Persson delivers lines laden with melancholy and rue. But only with the arrival of Roderick Williams, a handsome English baritone with a gorgeously fluid voice, do we suspect that not all is what it appears to be. The relationship between Persson’s and Williams’s characters grows evident, slowly and quietly, by the end of a 70-minute opera punctuated with brief plunges into complete darkness — blank outs.
Williams, you should know, isn’t actually there. He plays his role beautifully, yes, but entirely on film. Van der Aa, extensively trained in directing and increasingly deft with 3-D film, blends Persson’s live performance with Williams’s facsimile so near seamlessly that in time, the mediation disappears. What remains is an intimate relationship – and even realistic simulations of physical interactions – between two characters who cannot possibly meet. Van der Aa’s 3-D effects are seldom splashy; instead, they lend depth to his landscapes, impact to his puzzles, and flesh to his celluloid performers, including two doppelgängers that steal Persson’s phrases or harmonize with her.
Both Persson in her live work and Williams onscreen are magnifient singers and magnetic presences; in time, you start to believe that the two actually are interacting – an illusion supported by skillful amplification and a sound system capable of making Williams sound present without rendering Persson artificial.
What transpires in Blank Out, then, through its echoed images, repeated and exchanged vocal numbers, shifting perspectives, and conflicting narratives, comes off a bit like Pirandello as filtered through David Lynch. Indeed, it felt wholly serendipitous to encounter this slippery vignette so soon after absorbing Twin Peaks: The Return, where, similarly, almost nothing was what it first appeared to be, and everything felt vaguely uneasy even in the quietest moments.
An important point, maybe the important point: Van der Aa uses the extensive techniques and tools at his disposal to provide a dramatic experience he couldn’t convey otherwise. His music – a mélange of stark melodies and bruised harmonies; spare polyphony among Persson (and Perssons), Williams, and the recorded Netherlands Chamber Choir; and atmospheric electronica – complements his beautifully elliptical text, conveying mood potently. As in his previous, more elaborate opera Sunken Garden — which also featured Williams and 3-D film, and which I reviewed in its London premiere for The New York Times – Van der Aa borrows from dance-floor styles with ease and assurance, glitching and flipping digital strands with unusual authority.
Yet while the score and book of Blank Out absolutely withstand scrutiny and reward the listener, on their own they likely could not convey in full the subtleties and mysteries Van der Aa brings to thrilling life on stage and screen. And if it’s true, yes, that few creative artists are capable of playing auteur to a mode of musical theater so richly ambitious, Van der Aa’s example serves nevertheless to show what’s possible when powerful music, refined text, inventive stagecraft, and an affirmative embrace of technology are all brought to bear by someone who clearly has faith in opera’s potential to provide a vital, exciting, inimitable experience.
Blank Out repeats at the Park Avenue Armory Sept 22, 25, and 27 at 8pm, and Sept 24 at 3pm; armoryonpark.org