Between ticketing mayhem and ill-timed speeches, the big draw card for the official opening of the Melbourne Festival, Michel van der Aa’s contemporary opera After Life, was delayed by more than half an hour. Ordinarily this would be no drama, but I had to file a review immediately after the show for the next day’s Age. Instant reviews are a bracing experience at the best of times, and after an inelegant sprint to the stage door right before curtain call, I bunkered down in Dressing Room 13. Within half an hour, I’d drafted the response below and headed off to the opening night party. Later on, I moseyed down to the Festival Hub by the Yarra. The lack of a festive gathering place in recent years has been a particular gripe of mine, and it’s great to see a three-level purpose-built venue, close to the Arts Centre, where people can carouse. It is open till 3am every night of the Festival and is well worth checking out.
But back to After Life. The Regent Theatre, it must be said, is a massive barn, originally designed for cinema audiences. Frankly, the production looked small from row L of the stalls, and I’ve heard reports that on opening night a large number of patrons in the dress circle (which at the Regent is miles away from the stage) walked out. That doesn’t surprise me. I’m not sure proximity (or lack thereof) is entirely at fault, though. After Life is an attempt at what Wagner called a Gesamtkunstwerk – i.e. a “total artwork”, where different art forms are mixed and subordinated to an overriding aesthetic whole. Rule 867 in Cam Woodhead’s Non-Exhaustive Prescriptions for the Avoidance of Bad Theatre Ideas reads simply: ‘Never “half stage” a “total artwork” unless you want two and a half stars.’ Common sense, really.
After Life, by Michel van der Aa, Regent Theatre, Oct 11-13.
“Contemporary” and “hybrid” and “opera” seem innocuous enough by themselves, but combining the three is risky business. The last outing in this direction at the Melbourne Festival was the unfortunate Tomorrow, In A Year from 2010 – an electro-opera from Swedish pop group The Knife that was more or less destroyed by bafflingly pretentious staging, in which at least one dancer was doing what appeared to be an impersonation of seaweed. And that was one of the less obscure moments.
Unlike that experiment, After Life actually is an opera worthy of the name. They’re not renowned for their viability, new operas, and this is an exception. Its chief attraction is its unnerving and otherworldly score, which combines the insectile whirring of projectors and electronic composition with a traditional orchestra to create a dense and disorienting soundscape for the cast of lost souls in the story.
Based on the film from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda, After Life takes a purgatorial theme (and for this reason alone, the lacklustre official speeches before the show could have been shorter). Six of the recently departed arrive at a way station between earth and the hereafter. Uniformed staff inform them they must choose one memory from their lives to take with them to eternity. If they cannot decide, they will not move on.
For some, it is easy. A boy desires nothing more than to have his favourite pet alive again. An old woman voluntarily exiled from her homeland, and a refugee forced to flee hers, have no trouble either. But for others, it is an impossible task. One girl has no happy memories, and won’t choose. And an old man who seems to have lived a happy, married life finds he has a connection to one of the workers who usher souls into the afterlife, complicating his selection.
The singing is weird and dramatic, perhaps at its best during the eerie trios featuring the agents of the afterlife (Roderick Williams, Marijje van Stralen, Yannick-Muriel Noah). Unfortunately, the libretto doesn’t have even a smidgen of poetry in it.
Yet van der Aa is attempting something truly ambitious, and his talents do run as effortlessly to film-making as they do to musical composition. Three of the characters emerge through documentary interviews projected onto screens, while another three appear live on stage. The interaction between them is a brilliant idea.
However, this production is only “half-staged” and it suffers for it. The wow-factor would have been much greater, and given the opera a solemnity and grandeur it richly deserves, if it had gone all the way.