United States Michel van der Aa, Blank Out: Miah Persson (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Netherlands Chamber Choir, Park Avenue Armory, New York City, 21.9.2017. (KG)
Michel van der Aa’s complex and riveting Blank Out received its North American premiere on 21 September (kicking off a five-day run) in the wonderfully dark and cavernous Park Avenue Armory. With prerecorded audio, three-dimensional projection, and a stage set that repeatedly changed in scale without hiding its mechanisms, it was a gorgeous spectacle.
The opera is, at least on its face, a sort of ghost story about a woman (Miah Persson) haunted by the loss of her young son. She’s forced to recall the day he died, while living in fear of forgetting his life. As if to keep those memories alive, she constructs miniature scenes on stage, while adjusting a camera to allow the audience to peer into those memories, via a large screen behind her.
Her recollections aren’t the only things projected onto the screen. In short order, a man (Roderick Williams) appears and begins retelling the story of the drowning, using some of the woman’s same words and phrases. The suggestion is strongly made that this is the woman’s son, although he is now an adult. In his telling, it is the mother who died trying to save him. Is this the mother’s Hell, forever reliving his death? Or are there parallel universes (one on stage and one onscreen) bumping up against one another? In this year of alternate realities (both political and Twin Peaks-ian) it’s hard to hazard a guess. The opera was based in part on the life of South African poet Ingrid Jonkers, who committed suicide in 1965 by walking into the Atlantic Ocean, but that fact does little to straighten the narrative twists.
The obscured clarity was likely intentional. After being commissioned by the Dutch National Opera and a March 2016 premiere, any kinks in the staging or narrative may have been ironed out over the ensuing 18 months. The result is an attempt at making a story—helped by a stage set—that doubled back on itself. As with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks reboot, the emotions were raw and real, even when the events of the story didn’t seem to be.
Van der Aa is famously dedicated to employing technology for innovative stagings. He has used interactive video previously (notably in his 2013 opera Sunken Garden), and Blank Out was a fantastically inventive production—except, oddly enough, for its biggest tech component. The 3D projection that required attendees to wear glasses (text onscreen admonished the audience to keep them on the entire time, as if for an eclipse) didn’t particularly help or hinder the set or story. The few overt 3D effects (stones flying at the audience) seemed as forced as in any cheap horror movie. Though 3D defined the production, the result seemed unnecessary. By itself, however, the film was used to wonderful effect, allowing for flashbacks, exposition, and blurring between onstage and onscreen activity.
The music—and an opera should be about the music—was gorgeous, at least the vocal writing. The opening scene was the strongest, multi-tracked and sung a cappella, looped in real time by Persson. On the other hand, over the 70 minutes, the heavily sequenced electronic tracks were less than compelling. Near the end, Williams’ brief but beautiful solo suffered from the distraction of the growing aura of electronic tones.
In the penultimate scene, the live Persson and the onscreen Williams sang in turns, “I repeat you without beginning or end, repeat your body,” intoning Jonkers’ verses translated into English. Mother and son of roughly the same age danced to a flat techno score as they sang, as if having fun at home, or perhaps pantomiming having fun at home. Whether story or dream, whether either were alive, or whether any joy were to be had—van der Aa left the audience to speculate.