While the mainstream opera world discusses live opera versus cinema relays, and whether or not they are friends or enemies, composer Michel van der Aa continues to break with tradition, mixing disciplines and media to create uniquely structured works. His operas incorporate film and prerecorded soundtracks, and he works with pop artists and actors as well as classically trained singers. He has also composed an interactive song cycle, The Book of Sand, which is downloadable as an app. Blank Out, his newest creation, is also a hybrid, a “chamber opera for soprano, baritone, choir and 3D film”. Part opera, part film and part art installation, it is a fascinating multisensory journey of a Man and a Woman remembering a tragic event.

Miah Persson © Marco Borggreve
Miah Persson
© Marco Borggreve

Only the Woman, the all-round wonderful Miah Persson, acts and sings live on stage. Baritone Roderick Williams, playing her adult son, is present on film. The Woman interacts with the footage and also splices herself into it by filming herself in live 3D. The Netherlands Chamber Choir, which remains invisible, enriches the pre-recorded soundtrack with haunting four-part harmony. The multitalented Mr Van der Aa not only directed both stage and film, but also wrote the libretto, in which a mother and son relive a fateful day when he, then seven years old, found himself drowning while playing near their home. Although the plot is not based on her life, the libretto includes the work of South African poet Ingrid Jonker (1933-1965). There is a tenuous link to Jonker, who committed suicide by walking into the sea. The selected poems touch on feelings of maternal inadequacy, detachment and loss of identity ("mommy is no longer a person/ just an a...."), but none of these are explored in depth. At around 70 minutes, the opera is too short to deal adequately with so many big themes. Music, words and visuals operate on a sensory rather than an emotional level. The screen itself is a powerful metaphor for attempting to tame tragedy by retelling it. On film, the Man revisits his childhood home, a solitary house in a flat, Frisian landscape, while on stage the Woman compulsively reconfigures it using a dollhouse model. Yards of film reel spooled out across the stage hammer the analogy home.

Miah Persson and Roderick Williams © Marco Borggreve
Miah Persson and Roderick Williams
© Marco Borggreve

Composed in clean lines and saturated colours, the film footage, partly shot with drones, speaks in lucid imagery – the boy/man circling and re-circling the house, a violent shower of 3D pebbles. The soundtrack adds heightened auditory sensations, scrunching, hissing and lurching ahead in jolted rhythms. Audiovisual layers convey the narrative: the Woman nervously plays with real pebbles; we hear them grating; we learn that they featured in the drowning scene; they return on screen. Mr Van der Aa recorded the instrumental music using a modular synthesiser, a pre-digital “period” instrument from 1976, the year of the plot, but solo voices predominate. As finely sung as they were, the solo lines were limited in rhythmic and melodic variety, and were most expressive in combination, or when plumped out by the chorus. Smart use of film enabled Ms Persson to sing a trio with herself, piecing wisps of text together to form meaningful phrases – another effective metaphor for memory reconstruction. But it was the choral harmony, recalling Renaissance madrigals, which came closest to an emotional sense of calamity, rather than merely its recollection.

Roderick Williams and Miah Persson © Marco Borggreve
Roderick Williams and Miah Persson
© Marco Borggreve

Just like the staging transitioned between different formats, the score combined several idioms, including minimalist elements, lyricism, and, during a celebratory mother-son dance, techno music. Mr Van der Aa smoothly skates from one style into the other. In contrast, switching between dramatic formats at times interrupted atmospheric build-up, keeping the characters at an emotional distance. The Man’s onscreen monologue, for example, suddenly landed us in the middle of a documentary. Perhaps this intermittent alienation was intentional. Roderick Williams, singing with beautiful ruefulnes, created a strong onscreen persona with a vulnerable centre, yet he was directed to view his past with aloofness. The Woman, who is almost constantly on stage, makes or breaks this opera, and Miah Persson gave a riveting, superbly sung performance. Blind panic, rationalisation, tenderness, disassociation – she cast and recast the molten metal of her voice into the ever-changing feelings of the mother. In spite of her urgent performance, however, the character never wholly came into focus. Because of the indistinct contours of the protagonists and their reticent vocal music, Blank Out does not hijack emotions in the way it triggers the senses. Presumably, its primary intention is not to explore character, but to provide a sensory experience of memory and the physical immanence of tragedy. In this it succeeds brilliantly.

***11