A Climate Opera Arrives in New York, With 21 Tons of Sand
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On a rainy morning last 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 theater’s tarp-covered floor with a dull thud.
Once opened and spread around, the sand would form the foundation of “Sun & 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 on Wednesday and runs through Sept. 26.
“The way it delivers its ideas, it’s totally surprising,” said David Binder, BAM’s artistic director. “It disarms you and lures you in. That’s not the way we’re used to receiving work about the issues of our day — what we’re all facing in this summer of fires and floods and what we’ve done to the planet.”
For the work’s creators — Rugile Barzdziukaite, Vaiva Grainyte and Lina Lapelyte — the reception of “Sun & 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 all 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 & 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 Gursky’s 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 it’s never black and white,” Lapelyte said. “That goes the same with ‘Sun & Sea.’ When we talk about the climate crisis, it’s never coming with one view.”
“Sun & 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’s a destination deemed worth flying around the world, expelling tons of carbon, to simply lounge on — though not without a heavy dose of sunscreen to avoid a burn, or worse.
The characters in Grainyte’s libretto, which is both plain-spoken and poetic, are overworked and over-traveled, both self-righteously against technology’s 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 isn’t 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:
“We didn’t 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 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 create this work that is traveling the world.” (The production, like many in the performing arts, isn’t the most eco-friendly: For the BAM presentation, all that sand was transported by truck from VolleyballUSA in New Jersey to Brooklyn.)
But that doesn’t mean “Sun & 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 can’t say which,” Lapelyte said. “And at the same time it’s very much reduced to very few notes, and it’s 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 shouldn’t 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 & 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 piece’s arrival in Brooklyn, with the storm carrying the remnants of Hurricane Ida having killed over 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 whose natural disasters increasingly have the heavy-handedness of agitprop.
“I feel like I’m living in a dissonance and asking myself what’s next and how I should behave,” Grainyte said.
Those who attend the BAM production might find themselves asking similar questions. They won’t 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 there’s any waste they shouldn’t be worried about, it’s all that sand. After “Sun & 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 & Sea
Wednesday through Sept. 26 at BAM Fisher, Brooklyn; bam.org.