Michel van der Aa, Sunken Garden's Creator, on the High Technology Coming to the Dallas Opera

The fourth production in The Dallas Opera’s 2017-2018 season, Sunken Garden is wired-up, amplified and data-rich.
The fourth production in The Dallas Opera’s 2017-2018 season, Sunken Garden is wired-up, amplified and data-rich. Karen Almond, Dallas Opera
Michel van der Aa and I have a bad connection.

We’re chatting through Facetime to sidestep international calling fees, but my tech reality isn’t equal to the Grawemeyer Award-winner’s. He’s explaining how he created, composed and filmed the world’s first 3D opera, Sunken Garden, which gets its U.S. debut in Dallas tonight. I’m shaking my refurbished iPhone at a window, hoping to snag a longer thread of conversation before the line breaks up.

We’re talking because van der Aa is redefining opera’s reach, catapulting it far away from traditional themes and musical tactics. He’s turning the art form into a more immersive experience, packing his work full of groundbreaking technology.

The fourth production in The Dallas Opera’s 2017-2018 season, Sunken Garden is wired-up, amplified and data-rich. The wash of new media simultaneously combines electronic music with acoustic, 2D film with 3D film (yes, glasses are provided at the door), pop music elements mixed with contemporary classical, and singers who perform live in duet with prerecorded characters who are projected onto screens.

Our call drops again.

What is clear during our brief moments of connectivity is that van der Aa is an impassioned student of the human condition. For him, all of the challenging filmmaking, software development and synthetic constructs made for Sunken Garden were designed specifically to elevate the story.

At its core, the darkly philosophical libretto, penned by British author David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) examines an intermediary realm between life and death. It’s represented visually as a walled garden, an oddly beautiful world of hyper-realism, punctuated with rich, deep color that’s enhanced for the audience through cinematic 3D.

To reach that interloping otherland, we follow central character Toby Kramer (Roderick Williams), a documentary filmmaker who’s been tasked with investigating the mysterious disappearance of a young girl (Australian pop and contemporary musician Kate Miller-Heidke). She’s left behind old iPhone videos among the digital breadcrumbs. Kramer will have to piece her story together to have any hope of finding and saving her.

Sunken Garden represents an interesting offering for a Dallas audience. Despite being a city steeped in the fast-evolving tech industry, the opera crowd itself remains split. Traditionalists view the future of opera as further refinement of the OG classics — a sort of preservation effort for the next generation. The rest lean harder into reinvention, exploration and finding new ways to tell today’s stories through contemporary composition. It makes you wonder: Will Sunken Garden find its Dallas followers during its four-show run?

From set structure to sound design, van der Aa works in lockstep with a team of innovators who help bring the thing to life. So, whether Sunken Garden plays a small square theater in the UK or an opera hall in Dallas, they ensure the 3D visuals, surround sound and other elements are designed and balanced for each space. That's a huge undertaking with a project this complex.

For instance, at the Winspear select balconies and seats in the uppermost Grand Tier will be unavailable for purchase. Because of the steep sight lines of the building’s interior, 3D won’t work at its hardest angles.

Set and lighting designer Theun Mosk knows it’s true because he’s checked. He’s been busy exploring and preparing the opera house, installing the lighting and projectors, setting the beamers and fine-tuning his visual world so it perfectly delineates the garden’s spiritual region from that of the living.

Will Sunken Garden find its Dallas followers during its four-show run?

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To help the audience better absorb the story, Theun created a set that was modern, modular and minimal. So rather than adding more action to the visual space, the screens on wheels help compartmentalize the performers’ scenes while capturing film projections. The screens provide depth and distance, perspective and scope, and create opportunities for the live leads to duet with their hologram counterparts.

Sound designer Tom Gelissen has also been hustling since his plane touched down from Amsterdam. Because live and prerecorded sounds must coexist to accommodate the cinematic and electronic music elements, everything and everyone needs to be lightly miked, their sounds delivered in a targeted manner across Gelissen’s custom-built surround sound superhighway.

From maestra Nicole Paiement — who conducts the orchestra and a quasi-sentient synthesizer and onstage leads via clicktrack — to the audience, everyone needs to hear something different at the same moment. To get it, Gelissen has to actively mix the whole room’s flow like an air traffic controller. If that’s achieved, the house feels balanced and the audience is free to soak up what’s happening on stage.

It’s a lot to tackle, but Gelissen likes working with challenging components.

When he isn’t collaborating with van der Aa, Gelissen is bringing intimate operas into unconventional spaces back home, like abandoned factories, forests and parking garages. Or he’s balancing sound levels between rock bands and live orchestras. Here at the Winspear, his challenge is to ever-so-subtly turn a traditional opera venue on its head by filling it with speakers and evenly distributing the same sound to the balconies as the center orchestra — without anyone realizing he’s done it.

Even by contemporary opera standards, Sunken Garden is an outlier. Other popular works like The Exterminating Angel, Everest or The Lighthouse give a very stripped down, contained story: A group of people in isolation are 1. Dying, 2. Going mad, and 3. Singing about it.

Sunken Garden takes the opposite path. It integrates everything: a plot that doesn’t condense into an easy elevator pitch; rapidly evolving technology; cinematic elements; electronic music; Duran Duran references; and yes, 3D glasses.

But the good news is that while on paper Sunken Garden reads like a lot to connect with emotionally in one performance, nobody uses paper anymore. We’re accustomed to absorbing a massive bandwidth of data all day every day. Besides, at its heart, Sunken Garden is a meditation on the human soul in a post-dial-up world. And that’s something we can all relate to.

Sunken Garden has four performances: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets range: $29 to $139.
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Jamie Laughlin
Contact: Jamie Laughlin