Embedded perhaps in the notion that opera is the union of all the performing arts is a suggestion that, at some level, opera should overwhelm. And in 2022, why should it not include film? And live video? And multiple screens? And video advertorials? And distractions to attention and allusions to onscreen identity? Michel van der Aa's Upload, which opened an eight-night run at Manhattan's Park Avenue Armory on 22nd March, posed such aesthetic questions – and deeper existential ones – in a compelling and altogether contemporary new opera.

Roderick Williams (screen) and Julia Bullock in Upload
© Stephanie Berger

The story concerns a man who has opted for a not inexpensive service which uploads his psyche into cyberspace. His organic presence is then eliminated, allowing him to live eternally online. As ever, immortality is fraught with unforeseen consequences. 

The opera opened in darkness, with the disembodied voices of Julia Bullock and Roderick Williams filling the room. White-on-black supertitles, a bit small for comfort, appeared on a single screen high above the stage. Fortunately, one of the many talents displayed by the singers was being articulate enough that supertitles were only needed as reference points, especially once Theun Mosk's clean and curious set demanded attention. Everything on the stage seemed either behind a screen or projected one, and the difference wasn’t always clear. The screens moved and overlapped like open windows on a computer, and in fact stood in for the computer screens within which contemporary lives are led. Williams, as the immortalized man, was seen at times in multiple, putting his theatrical acumen on display through tight, repeated close ups, something you don’t often get in Verdi. 

Julia Bullock in Upload
© Stephanie Berger

The screens also displayed intermittent advertorial spots for the company that provides the service (“The human mind is the last analog device in the digital world,” one talking head informs us, “until now”), as well as interviews with satisfied clients and family members of the unnamed protagonist, the dialogue spoken without accompaniment. Bullock, as his skeptical daughter, was wonderfully worried and restrained. She and Williams were the only ones to grace the stage, at least in physical form. Van der Aa's music – he wrote the story, libretto and score – was on point and effective, delivered with precision by Ensemble Musikfabrik. Orchestral glitches and abrupt repetitions set the uncertain digital terrain. Surprisingly heroic themes, even under the singers, and passages of utter cinematic suspense moved the action like a movie.

Roderick Williams in Upload
© Stephanie Berger

The production was jointly commissioned by the Park Avenue Armory and Dutch National Opera and received its premiere in Amsterdam last fall. But the opera was conceived for the Armory, van der Aa said in a preconcert talk, and written for Bullock and Williams. Van der Aa brought his Blank Out to the Armory in 2017 with more visual spectacle than story. With Upload, he has matched the appeal and intrigue into perfect suspense. There's a quibble in the air that the spoken exposition make it something other than opera, a rather stodgy and rather uninteresting critique. A better argument would be that by using contemporary technology, van der Aa has created life after opera. 

*****