When Japanese Manga cartoons meet Latvian opera singers in a Danish theatre company’s cauldron, one imagines that the sum total of it all could easily translate into a massive train wreck. And yet, Hotel Pro Forma, helmed by the Danish director Kirsten Dehlholm, manages to mash up these disparate elements with sparseness and grace in her elegant production titled War Sum Up, a collaboration with Latvian Radio Choir and National Opera presented this weekend as part of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival.

© Gunars Janaitis
© Gunars Janaitis

On a technical level, War Sum Up serves up a fascinating proposal for what could be considered a 21st-century opera. The production contains many of the elements that would make the purists cringe, and yet – historically speaking – definitely break new ground in a field that is notoriously resistant to change and innovation, and therefore worthy of a proper shake-up. Dehlholm and her team definitely deal a punch or two by relegating the entire score to a recorded track, and also by amplifying and electronically manipulating singers’ voices. It is – again, in the context of the genre – a brave choice, and it pays off handsomely, as the music and the singing are mixed in real time and melded into a powerfully lush, immersive soundscape that proves to be the production’s strongest element.

Production-wise, War Sum Up is much more of a kaleidoscopic visual installation than a theatrical spectacle. Minimalistically staged on a two-tiered set, Dehlholm arranges the singing ensemble in static tableaux. With the proscenium divided in six quadrants, sandwiched between a solid rear projection screen and the frontal translucent scrim, the director indeed creates a stage version of a comic strip, aided (for the most part) by aptly bombastic drawings by the Manga artist Hikaru Hayashi. The human figures in this production – clad in fashion designer Henrik Vibskov’s fascinatingly clunky, futuristic outfits reminiscent of Dune – become textures and projection surfaces. Alternately washed in cold fluorescent lighting and deeply colored hues, they become mere shadows at times, silhouetted against the brightly projected background. In certain moments, their ghostly presence is barely perceptible behind the scrim. All of this, however, feels like a completely apt choice for a work that ruminates on the nature of war, and acts as a requiem for destruction and loss. In the same vein, the decision to put Manga – an often violent, visually striking drawing style – on a collision course with texts borrowed from the ancient Noh theatre (indeed the entire work is sung in Japanese) does not at all feel like an odd choice, but instead creates a sense of timelessness, serving as a reminder that the history of mankind has, sadly, been inextricably laced with conflicts on a grand scale that, to this day, keep redrawing the world map with a stylus dipped in blood.

Thematically, the opera’s fil rouge is a lady in yellow, who is the only character in the piece relegated to the apron of the proscenium, downstage of all the architectural and projection machinery. Referred to in the program as the “Gamemaster”, for all her innocent looks (the show begins with her playing a sweet tune on a music box) she is the mastermind of this chess game. She is the protagonist of the prologue, and mostly witnesses the proceedings thereafter. The main body of the opera is divided in three sections, each dedicated to a single protagonist – and therefore, each highlighting a soloist – representing different aspects of war. Through the Soldier, Dehlholm explores the issue of post-traumatic stress syndrome, alienation, and sacrifice; the Warrior is the ever-present ghost borne out of a fighter’s untimely demise, who can’t find piece until his story is heard; and the Spy is agent who escapes captivity by resorting to extraordinary measures.

Not only are the War Sum Up’s sources and the media at play diverse, the musical selection is equally eclectic. In a production that abounds in Nordic sangfroid, it is the music that does most of the violence – and reconciliation. With contributions from Santa Ratniece, an up-an-coming Latvian composer and Gilbert Nouno, the production has a vast sonic range, from minimalistic soundscapes, to J-pop, to terrifyingly jarring electronica à la Stockhausen, to breathtakingly luscious orchestrations which, as was to be expected, were gorgeously composed by the UK contemporary band The Irrepressibles.