Climate opera arrives in New York with 21 tons of sand


One rainy morning last week, a beach arrived outside the door of a Brooklyn theater.

Or at least the raw materials for one: 21 tons of sand, packed in 50-pound bags, of which 840. Pushed into the BAM Fisher on pushchair carts, they were unceremoniously dropped onto the tarpaulin-covered floor. from the theater with a thud.

Once opened and spread, the sand would form the basis of ‘Sun & Sea’, an installation-like opera that won first prize at the Venice Biennale in 2019 and has become a masterpiece in the era. of climate change. Neither didactic nor abstract, it is an insidiously enjoyable mosaic of consumption, globalization and ecological crisis. And its next stop is the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it opens on Wednesday and runs through September 26.

“The way he delivers his ideas is totally surprising,” said David Binder, artistic director of BAM. “It disarms you and draws you in. This is not the way we are used to receiving work on the problems of our day – what we are all facing in this summer of fires and floods and what we have done to the planet. . “

For the creators of the work – Rugile Barzdziukaite, Vaiva Grainyte and Lina Lapelyte – the reception of “Sun & Sea”, only their second collaboration, was a kind of Cinderella story, as they put it in a recent one. video interview. But as much as it is a fairy tale, the work is the fruit of a friendship born in the Lithuanian city where they all grew up.

Barzdziukaite eventually became a director; Grainyte, writer; Lapelyte, a musical artist. Working together, they were drawn to opera, they said, because it provided “a meeting place” for their individual practices. As a trio, added Grainyte, “we can listen to each other and dive into this process without fighting or worrying about ego.”

Their first project was “Have a Good Day!”, Which traveled to New York for the Prototype festival in 2014. Like “Sun & Sea”, it touched on its subject – the thoughts of supermarket cashiers and the cycles of consumption – with a light touch. . The cast of 10 singers, all women to conjure up a typical Lithuanian shop, shared stories that charmed until, in their accumulation, they tackled the nauseating excess of photographer Andreas Gursky on the same theme “99 Cent”.

“The idea was to have this zooming approach using micro-narratives,” Grainyte said, “but also to be aware that we also belong to this part of the buying and selling circles.”

It was important to the three creators that, although bitterly ironic, “Have a nice day!” was not controversial. “We tried to really avoid the ‘truth’ because it’s never black and white,” Lapelyte said. “It’s the same with ‘Sun & Sea’. When we talk about the climate crisis, it never comes with just one point of view. “

“Sun & Sea” is more ambitious: still subtle, intimate and bewitching, but sprawling in scale. From a shard of sand, Barzdziukaite, Grainyte and Lapelyte extract broad implications. The beach, after all, is an Anthropocene battleground that both embraces and challenges nature. It’s a destination worth traveling around the world, expelling tons of carbon, just to relax, but not without a heavy dose of sunscreen to prevent a burn, or worse.

The characters in Grainyte’s libretto, both frank and poetic, are overworked and over-traveled, both proud against the intrusion of technology into their lives and welcoming it. Their stories are told in the form of monologues and vignettes, interspersed with choirs of sinister serenity.

Often the characters are oblivious. “What a relief that the Great Barrier Reef has a restaurant and a hotel!” a woman sings. “We sat down to sip our piña coladas – included in the price! They taste better underwater, simply heaven! Her husband seems unaware that her exhaustion is not that different from that of the earth itself as he sighs melodically, “Suppressed negativity finds an unexpected outcome, like lava.” “

Some characters find beauty in the horrors of modern life. “The banana is born, ripens somewhere in South America, then it ends up on the other side of the planet, so far from home,” sings one of them. “It only existed to satisfy our hunger in a bite, to give us a feeling of happiness.”

Another, in the opera’s most unforgettable image, observes:

Pink dresses float:
Jellyfish dance in pairs –
With emerald colored bags,
Red bottles and bottle caps.

the sea has never been so colorful!

“We didn’t want to be too declarative,” Barzdziukaite said. “At one point, Vaiva removed all words that directly addressed ecological issues. The final work was about half of what has been written.

What they didn’t want was to give the impression that they were climate activists. “It would be unfair to say that,” Grainyte said. “If we were activists, we wouldn’t be creating this work that travels the world. (Production, like many in the performing arts, isn’t the most eco-friendly: for BAM’s presentation, all of that sand was trucked from VolleyballUSA in New Jersey to Brooklyn.)

But that does not mean that “Sun & Sea” avoids liability by design. Political art is a specter, and its creators are aware that they are grappling with heavy and urgent subjects; they just want their opera to “activate”, as Lapelyte puts it.

Beyond the text, music and visual presentation are essential for this purpose. The electronic score – earworm after earworm – provides minimal accompaniment to singers and was written to reflect ease of recreation.

“We wanted it to be pretty pop, to remind you of a song that you know well but can’t tell which one,” said Lapelyte. “And at the same time, it’s very reduced to very few notes, and it’s also repetitive like a pop song.”

The action, although largely improvised by volunteers who flesh out the cast, is handled obsessively by Barzdziukaite. Participants are requested to arrive with specific colors (mainly calming pastels). As the approximately one hour long opera is sung in a loop, they are asked not to appear to be playing, nor to greet the audience. For artists, the experience shouldn’t be any different from a trip to the beach.

“We use this documentary approach a lot in all aspects,” said Barzdziukaite. Observing spectators might notice how plastic casually fills the space; a pair of partially buried headphones, or abandoned toys, will be familiar sights.

In Venice, the public left “Sun & Sea” to be confronted with countless inexpensive souvenirs and towering cruise ships. At the end of the race, the city was flooded. Heavy rains will also have preceded the coin’s arrival in Brooklyn, with the storm carrying the remnants of Hurricane Ida killing more than 40 people in New York City and three neighboring states. None of this is lost on the creators, who find themselves grappling with what it means to make subtle art in a world whose natural disasters increasingly have the heaviness of agitprop.

“I feel like I’m living in dissonance and wondering what’s next and how I should behave,” Grainyte said.

Those attending the BAM production might have similar questions. They won’t see tchotchkes swarming Venetian stores, but maybe on the way home they’ll take another look at the trash on the subway tracks or on the shelves of Midtown’s miniature Empire State Buildings.

If there’s any trash they shouldn’t worry about, it’s all that sand. After Sun & Sea closes, it will be vacuumed, disinfected and reused as a beach volleyball court, perhaps, or as a playground. But probably never again as an opera house.

Sun & Sea

Wednesday to September 26 at BAM Fisher, Brooklyn;


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