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Summer Opera 2006: "After Life"

Margriet van Reisen and Claron McFadden, After Life, 2006, photo by Hans van den BogaardEarlier this month, Dutch composer Michel van der Aa (b. 1970) directed the premiere of his new opera, After Life, on a libretto adapted from the film of Hirokazu Kore-Eda, at De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam. Van der Aa also wrote and directed the video and sound pieces that are integrated into the live performance. Here is a brief summary of the plot from the DNO Web site:

Those who have died are required to choose a favorite memory to take with them into eternity as they arrive at an intermediary point; they may only proceed on their path to heaven once they have named their most defining moment. They are allowed one week in which to make their choice, during which time they are helped by others who have predeceased them but who themselves have not been able to make their choice and so therefore must remain at the intermediary point.
There were a few reviews, beginning with Andrew Clements (After Life, June 8) in The Guardian:
Like the movie, van der Aa's piece combines the imaginary with the real, intercutting the fictional operatic action with documentary video interviews in which a variety of people are asked to remember the defining moments in their lives. The opera's eight protagonists are in limbo, poised between life and death and confronting that same question, selecting the one memory from their past lives to take with them into eternity. Those that cannot choose remain caught between the two worlds until they make a decision, and it's the intertwined fates of two characters, one newly arrived, the other marooned there for 50 years but both involved with the same woman, that provides the main narrative thread.

But it's the meshing of that plot with the documentary elements that proves so teasingly effective, for as the 100-minute piece goes on, the boundary between the two blurs until the four interviewees are seen on video encountering the operatic characters, so that their touching stories seem to infuse the fantasy with something much more directly emotional. It's a strange effect, supported and sustained by van der Aa's ensemble writing, which is dominated by richly detailed string textures and enriched by electronic transformations, though the vocal writing (to an English text) is not always equally effective.
Van der Aa has a press roundup of his own at his Web site, excerpts all translated into English from Dutch and other languages. I wish I could find more about the score. Anyone?


Garth Trinkl said...

While waiting for "After Life" to come out on CD or DVD or PBS, you can sample the "sound design interludes" that Van der Aa provided for Louis Andriessen's "Writing to Vermeer", which is available on Nonesuch.
Andriessen warmly acknowledges the contribution of his younger colleague, Van der Aa, to that project. (Van der Aa apparently assembled his own libretto for "After Life", after the film --a fact you leave out.)

The electronic elements of "Writing to Vermeer" struck me as strong, though not as strong as the interlude's the late Barry Anderson prepared, at IRCAM - Paris, for Harrison Birtwistle's "The Mask of Orpheus," a generation ago.

Perhaps Van der Aa's publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, will release some audio clips from the new opera, for study and promotional purposes.

Charles T. Downey said...

Garth, thanks for making explicit what I had left implied: "a libretto [he] adapted." Interesting to hear about the Nonesuch disc, too.

Garth Trinkl said...

Thanks, Charles... Ironically, I myself forgot to note above that the librettist to "Writing to Vermeer" is the British avant-garde filmmaker, Peter Greenaway.

Also, I noticed that Louis Andriessen thanks Michel Van der Aa as that works "co-composer" on the acknowledgement page of the Nonesuch recording. Given my less than fully positive feelings about that work, I still would very much look foward to seeing or hearing Van der Aa's own operatic work.