NEW YORK, NY.-
On a rainy morning this past week, a beach arrived at the front door of a theater in Brooklyn.
Or at least the raw ingredients for one: 21 tons of sand, packaged in 50-pound bags, 840 of them. Wheeled into the BAM Fisher on pushcart dollies, they were unceremoniously dropped onto the theaters tarp-covered floor with a dull thud.
Once opened and spread around, the sand would form the foundation of Sun and Sea, an installation-like opera that won the top prize at the Venice Biennale in 2019 and has emerged as a masterpiece for 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 Wednesday and runs through Sept. 26.
The way it delivers its ideas, its totally surprising, said David Binder, BAMs artistic director. It disarms you and lures you in. Thats not the way were used to receiving work about the issues of our day what were all facing in this summer of fires and floods and what weve done to the planet.
For the works creators Rugile Barzdziukaite, Vaiva Grainyte and Lina Lapelyte the reception of Sun and Sea, only their second collaboration, has been something of a Cinderella story, as they said in a recent video interview. But as much as it is a fairy tale, the work is the fruit of a friendship that began in the Lithuanian town where they grew up.
Barzdziukaite eventually became a director; Grainyte, a writer; Lapelyte, a musical artist. In working together, they were attracted to opera, they said, because it provided a meeting place for their individual practices. As a trio, Grainyte added, we can listen to each other and dive into this process without fighting or dealing with egos.
Their first project was Have a Good Day!, which traveled to New York for the Prototype festival in 2014. Like Sun and Sea it approached its subject the thoughts of supermarket cashiers, and cycles of consumption with a light touch. The cast of 10 singers, all women to evoke a typical store in Lithuania, shared stories that charmed until, in their accumulation, they took on the nauseating excess of the photographer Andreas Gurskys similarly themed 99 Cent.
The idea was to have this zoom-in approach using micro narratives, Grainyte said, but also being conscious that we also belong to this part of buying and selling circles.
It was important to the three creators that, while bitterly ironic, Have a Good Day! was not polemical. We tried to really avoid the one truth, because its never black and white, Lapelyte said. That goes the same with Sun and Sea. When we talk about the climate crisis, its never coming with one view.
Sun and Sea is more ambitious: still subtle, intimate and haunting, but sprawling in scale. From a sliver of sand, Barzdziukaite, Grainyte and Lapelyte extract broad implications. The beach, after all, is a battleground of the Anthropocene that both embraces and defies nature. It is a destination deemed worth flying around the world, expelling tons of carbon, to simply lounge on although not without a heavy dose of sunscreen to avoid a burn, or worse.
The characters in Grainytes libretto, which is both plain-spoken and poetic, are overworked and overtraveled, both self-righteously against technologys intrusion in their lives and welcoming of it. Their stories are told as monologues and vignettes, broken up by choruses of sinister serenity.
Often, the characters are oblivious. What a relief that the Great Barrier Reef has a restaurant and hotel! one woman sings. We sat down to sip our piña coladas included in the price! They taste better under the water, simply a paradise! Her husband seems unaware that his burnout isnt so different from that of the earth itself as he sighs melodically, Suppressed negativity finds a way out unexpectedly, like lava.
Some characters find beauty in the horrors of modern life. The banana comes into being, ripens somewhere in South America, and then it ends up on the other side of the planet, so far away from home, one sings. It only existed to satisfy our hunger in one bite, to give us a feeling of bliss.
Another, in the most unforgettable image of the opera, observes:
Rose-colored dresses flutter:
Jellyfish dance along in pairs
With emerald-colored bags,
Bottles and red bottle caps.
O the sea never had so much color!
We didnt want to be too declarative," Barzdziukaite said. At some point, Vaiva was taking off all the words which were dealing with ecological issues directly. The final work amounted to about half of what was written.
What they didnt 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 wouldnt create this work that is traveling the world. (The production, like many in the performing arts, isnt the most eco-friendly: For the BAM presentation, all that sand was transported by truck from VolleyballUSA in New Jersey to Brooklyn.)
But that doesnt mean Sun and Sea avoids responsibility by design. Political art is a spectrum, and its creators are aware that they are wrestling with unwieldy and urgent topics; they just want their opera to activate, as Lapelyte put it.
Crucial to that effect are, beyond the text, the music and visual presentation. The electronic score earworm after earworm provides minimal accompaniment for the singers and was written to reflect the ease of leisure.
We wanted it to be quite poppy, that it would remind you of a song that you know well but you cant say which, Lapelyte said. And at the same time, its very much reduced to very few notes, and its also repetitive like a pop song.
The action, while largely improvised by volunteers who flesh out the cast, is obsessively managed by Barzdziukaite. Participants are asked to arrive wearing specific colors (mostly calming pastels). While the roughly hourlong opera is sung in a loop, they are instructed not to seem to be acting, nor to acknowledge the audience. For the performers, the experience shouldnt be any different from a trip to the beach.
We are very much using this documentary approach in every aspect, Barzdziukaite said. Observant audience members might notice how casually plastic fills the space; a pair of partially buried headphones or some abandoned toys will be familiar sights.
In Venice, audiences left Sun and Sea to be confronted by countless cheap souvenirs and towering cruise ships. When the run ended, the city was flooded. Heavy rain will also have preceded the pieces arrival in Brooklyn, with the storm carrying the remnants of Hurricane Ida having killed more than 40 people in New York and three neighboring states. None of this is lost on the creators, who find themselves wrestling with what it means to make subtle art in a world with natural disasters that increasingly have the heavy-handedness of agitprop.
I feel like Im living in a dissonance and asking myself whats next and how I should behave, Grainyte said.
Those who attend the BAM production might find themselves asking similar questions. They wont see tchotchkes crowding Venetian shops, but perhaps on the way home they will take another look at the garbage on the subway tracks or the shelves of miniature Empire State Buildings in Midtown.
If theres any waste they shouldnt be worried about, its all that sand. After Sun and Sea closes, it will be vacuumed up, sanitized and repurposed as a beach volleyball court, maybe, or as a playground. But probably never again as an opera.
'Sun and Sea': Wednesday through Sept. 26 at BAM Fisher, Brooklyn; bam.org.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times