Review: In 'Upload,' do blockchains dream of electric lizards?

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Review: In 'Upload,' do blockchains dream of electric lizards?
The baritone Roderick Williams in Michel van der Aa’s “Upload,” at the Dutch National Opera. Michel van der Aa’s new opera weaves technology into a traditional form with masterly restraint for a sci-fi spin on a fundamentally human tale. Marco Borggreve/Dutch National Opera via The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

AMSTERDAM.- “I’m here, that’s for sure!” the digital facsimile of a father tells his daughter early in Michel van der Aa’s new opera, “Upload.”

What exactly it means to be “here” — particularly when someone exists only as consciousness stored on blockchain data spread across thousands of servers — is up for debate, and guides the drama in “Upload,” a masterly weaving of music, film and motion-capture technology that opened at the Dutch National Opera here Friday, before a run at the Park Avenue Armory in New York next spring.

But that sci-fi premise is little more than a veneer. Not for nothing did Mary Shelley give “Frankenstein” the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus”; the finest genre fiction has always examined humanity through allegory. So, too, does van der Aa’s spare yet richly complicated work, which is preoccupied less with futuristic speculation than timeless matters of the heart and mind, whether corporeal or in the cloud.

Which is not to say that van der Aa is uninterested in the bleeding edge. Rather, for decades, and with mixed success, he has been at the fore of marrying traditional forms with new media — inventing software and putting his film degree to regular use — through, for example, 3D technology in the opera “Sunken Garden” and virtual reality in the poetic installation “Eight.”

The challenge, always, is in making sure the shiny new thing doesn’t overtake the music, but instead is gracefully incorporated into a balanced whole. Van der Aa achieved something like that in “Eight,” complementing the immersion of VR with a score of poplike directness. And “Upload” is the work of an artist in absolute command of his tool kit, employing a restraint that makes for smooth shifts between acoustic and electric, live performance and film, without any one thing drawing attention to itself throughout the opera’s brisk 80 minutes.

Most important, van der Aa — who not only composed “Upload,” but also wrote the libretto, staged it and directed a film version streaming on — tightly binds technology and dramaturgy. No deployment of theatrical magic is extraneous. Its transparent presence even enhances the drama, such as when the Father, at one end of the stage, sings into motion-capture cameras while the Daughter interacts with his digital avatar mere feet away in a paradox of proximity and unbridgeable distance.

That father, the libretto slowly reveals, recently lost his wife. In a state of unbearable grief, made worse by thoughts of his own mortality and what it would mean for their adult daughter, he secretly undergoes a procedure to upload his consciousness — and in the process end his physical existence. It’s technology so new that, despite its thorny implications, it has yet to be regulated. He then returns to his daughter, granted virtual immortality but unable to, say, give her a hug on the way in.

We’ve seen this before, in fact and fiction — real-life chatbots imitating departed loved ones or, on “Black Mirror,” given android form. “Years and Years,” Russell T Davies’ miniseries of our near future, ends with a terminally ill woman becoming the first person to live on as an uploaded consciousness that can speak through Alexa-like devices. If the technology isn’t inevitable, at least the aspiration to it is. As a scientist says in “Upload”: “Every piece of information in the world has been copied and backed up. Except the human mind. It’s the last analog device in the digital world. Until now.”

Van der Aa’s take on this subject is not a cautionary tale — despite his gentle satirizing of the hubris of Silicon Valley culture in his treatment of the upload company’s CEO (Ashley Zukerman of “Succession”) — but a focused study of an emerging technology and the questions it raises about what constitutes life, through one family’s story.

As if to keep the piece rooted in its humanity, van der Aa begins with only a voice in the dark: the Daughter, sung by soprano Julia Bullock with subtle longing as she lists bodily word associations like “expand — lungs,” “support — bones” and “pull — muscle.” The electronics track slyly enters, atmospheric, and she is joined by the Father (baritone Roderick Williams, whose warm tone and charisma create a wellspring of sympathy for his character).

The Father ends that poetic list with “weight — less,” which cues skittering sounds of the lively and nimble players of Ensemble Musikfabrik, under the assured baton of Otto Tausk. Van der Aa’s score here provides a tense transition, one of many to come, including a glitchy hybrid of acoustic and electronic music that introduces the first filmed sequence, establishing a parallel track to the Father and Daughter’s interactions.

These scenes, spoken and performed by actors (among them Katja Herbers of “Westworld” and “Evil”), take place starting three months earlier, at the bucolic facility where uploads take place. They at first seem to tell more than show, explaining the procedure by way of a tour for prospective clients. But in also tracing the Father’s experience there, a complex portrait of him emerges as he undergoes the creation of a so-called Mindfile based on interviews with friends and family — pointedly, not the Daughter. He also develops a Memory Anchor, a crucial tool that keeps a digital brain from, as it’s described, “drifting off into open space like an astronaut”; his is of a place he used to visit with his parents as a child, where birds chirped as he tried to catch lizards along a stone wall that was hot to the touch in the summer sun.

Occasionally, the spoken films overlap with live performance. Williams, in one moment, is shown singing words like “sheep” and “ship” into a machine to teach it the contours of his speech. But otherwise the singing is limited to the Father and Daughter’s scenes together; van der Aa’s musical writing for their exchanges follows the natural rhythms of the English language. But in their monologues, melodies take flight: long, lyrical lines — lushly delivered by Bullock with rending emotion — that are amplified, complicated and contradicted by orchestral undercurrents.

When briefly in a “paused state,” the Father realizes that something failed in the upload; it should have suppressed the trauma of his wife’s death but didn’t, dooming him to grieve her for eternity. He wants to be terminated, an irreversible action that can only be carried out by his daughter.

If that dilemma doesn’t feel entirely compelling or earned, it’s because the Daughter is never properly developed. She is introduced as curious about her father’s new form, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone feeling more than shock or anger in her place. Instead, she is shown only in various states of mourning. (And this might be too New York-centric a fixation, but how on earth can this young woman afford to live in an airy Tribeca penthouse with a garden terrace?)

Maybe it’s for the best, then, that we never see her decision. The parallel stories arrive at parallel endings: the past, the night before the Father’s upload, and the present, the night before his likely termination. In a stunning coup de théâtre, a white curtain springs out, suspended over the audience. On it are the Father and Daughter projected in split screen. Although at opposite ends of the stage, even different planes of existence, they are presented as if lying head-to-head.

As they drift into sleep, we are left with the Father’s Memory Anchor, a dream rendered digitally — the green of the earth too green, the blue of the sky too blue. Everything we’ve heard about is there: the stone, hot to the touch, a lizard at rest. But the image occasionally flickers, defaulting to the 3D line drawings of drafting software, until the resolution degrades into soft fields of color. Only the sounds of breeze and birdsong remain.

It’s a mysterious final scene, but not one that requires any answers. Regardless of what happens next, someone will be forced to live with the pain of loss. And no technology, it seems, can spare us that fundamentally human experience.


Through Friday at the Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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