As Big as the Sky

Holland Festival catalogue texts

Programme Notes

by Thea Derks

Arnoud Noordegraaf made a name for himself with multi-media works offering a symbiosis between music and image. Voyager (2004) for mezzo soprano, soundtrack, décor and film was praised for its ‘remarkable unity of atmosphere and style’, the installation Solitude (2005) being called a ‘perfect and poetic balance between spatial image and three dimensional sound’, while Muze (2007) for baritone, cello, percussion, soundtracks and film was lauded for triggering ‘a magnificent dream-like feeling, leaning towards hypnotism’.

As Big as the Sky is his third project with the British playwright Adrian Hornsby, after the well-received A.M. (2011) and UrWald (2013). As in all his works, Noordegraaf addresses the theme of people dealing with their sometimes incomprehensible surroundings. In this case there seems to be a clash between West and East: the young European architect Sem is baffled by the different concept of ‘authenticity’ he encounters during a building project in a Chinese village. He’s aghast that the original housing is torn down and replaced by new structures, yet the villagers enthuse about living in new homes with spic and span tiling and flooring. His superior Wu Cai self-assuredly states: ‘Now village too dirty. Houses not authentic Chinese. Too old and run down and not beautiful.’

Sem sets out enthusiastically, yet ends disillusioned. He dreams of writing history by building a punctured dome over a village, transforming it into a giant camera obscura. In vain he battles his commissioners, who wish to turn this architectural tour de force into a tourist trap. He does finish the dome to worldwide acclaim, yet can’t enjoy the praise. The journey from hope to deception in his professional career is mirrored in his personal life by his love affair with Mulan. Enamoured with this great singer of Chinese opera, he’s nonplussed when she appears to be an admired pop star, too. That she happily embraces the new reality and doesn’t share his qualms about authenticity falling prey to fake, is perhaps even more distressing: he seems to be an eternal outsider.

At first sight As Big as the Sky seems to address two conflicting visions of society: China (the East) welcoming the future with joyful expectancy, the West hanging on to a romanticized idea of the past, fearing new developments. Yet at the same time the opera sheds light on a relentless western capitalism being copied in the East: Sem not only has to bend to the Chinese billionaire Wu Cai, but also to his Dutch superior M. When Woman Wang refuses to give way to the bulldozers and stubbornly holds on to her ‘nail house’ (one single building, sticking out like a rusty nail from an otherwise bare construction site), the western press indignantly accuses the Chinese of abusing human rights. Once the dome is finished, however, they cheer this great achievement. Hypocrisy rules on either side: both the West and the East only have their own interests in mind. As Mulan sings: it’s ‘all a lie, as big as the sky’.

As in his other mixed-media productions, Noordegraaf creates a symbiosis between screen, stage and music. Some characters appear on film only, such as Sem’s commissioners: M, the Dutch master builder, and Wu Cai, the Chinese billionaire (played by Ai Weiwei in a business suit with blaringly yellow tie). Mulan performs both on the stage and on video. During Sem’s Skype conference with journalists, his mother and his principals, we see him live, while the others are coming at him from multiple screens. Together they drive him mad with a pandemonium of expectations and commands, eventually turning into a threatening chorus. Their chant ‘Sem Sem Sem’ is iterated in the rhythm of ‘the augurs of spring’ from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

For his stage design Ai Weiwei developed a moving structure, based on an ancient concept.

Ai: ‘There’s a Chinese term describing a shape that represents “round heaven, square earth”, which we often find in jade sculptures incorporating both a circle and a square.’ By rotating this object in the course of the opera, the sky is literally turned upside down, visualizing the essence of the opera. The same goes for the images projected onto this moving structure: ‘They become distorted, expressing different emotions. Everything is a matter of perspective, whether we’re interpreting opera, architecture or love.’

In his score Noordegraaf subtly incorporates elements from Western and Chinese music. The opening, overtures and final scene are set to a rather strict form of western-style ‘modern music’, as he terms it. These passages function as the pillars on which the structure of the opera rests. Mulan initially sings in a style akin to traditional kunqu opera, Sem employing a rather more Wagnerian idiom. Mr. Luo, the village announcer, produces a sing- song version of Chinese folk melodies, the film people mainly use plain speech. Some literal musical quotes found their way into the score, too. For instance from Wagner’s opera’s Tristan und Isolde and Siegfried, but also from the kunqu opera The Peony Pavilion.

Noordegraaf: ‘Occasionally I even hint at rhythm & blues and Chinese pop music, but these are passing references, they function as a source of inspiration. It’s not my intention for people to start quizzing about what quotes they’re hearing. Most of the time I freely fantasize, intertwining the different idioms. Gradually they merge into one coherent style.’

© Thea Derks / Holland Festival 2015


Act I

Kathy, a journalist, arrives in a tiny village in southern China that is in the throes of large-scale construction. She is greeted by a local, Mr. Luo, before moving on to meet with Sem, the architect.

Up in his office, Sem explains his plan to build a dome to cover the village and, through a hole in the top, transform it into a giant camera obscura. Sem has Skype meetings with M, his boss in Rotterdam, and Wu Cai, a Chinese self-made billionaire who grew up in the village, and who is driving the project now. Wu Cai announces the dome will be a tourist attraction with perfor- mances of traditional Chinese opera by celebrity singer Qin Mulan.

Mulan herself arrives in the village for a test shoot, and hearing her sing, Sem falls in love.

Act II

The old village has been demolished to make way for a new “Authenticity Village”, and Luo is excited about the prospect of a job playing an “authentic villager” for tourists. Kathy goes up to see Sem, who is now thoroughly entranced by Chinese opera.

Mulan arrives and she and Sem sing lovingly together, but the bubble bursts when Woman Wang, a 99 year-old villager who refuses to move for the bulldozers, is picked up by Mulan’s paparazzi. Her “nail house” triggers a global media furore, and construction on the dome is stalled.


With the project going nowhere, Mulan decides to leave. Sem vents his frustration on Mr. Luo, beating him, and then fleeing in horror. However news that Woman Wang has died in her sleep opens the way forward, and Sem is encouraged to return to his drawings. As the dome approaches completion it is again picked up by the global media, only now is praised as an architectural masterpiece. At the A-list celebrity opening, Mulan comes on to perform a favourite Chinese aria.

© Adrian Hornsby / Arnoud Noordegraaf 2015
a copy of the full libretto is available upon request


Over the past decades China has loosened up on its socialist ideals and em- braced a more capitalist policy. Booming building projects trigger massive migration from rural areas to ever expanding cities. At the same time traditional villages are rapidly being transformed into ultra-modern constructions, their progress being halted only by the odd villager who stubbornly refuses to give up his ‘nail house’. Composer/director Arnoud Noordegraaf and librettist Adrian Hornsby address this theme in their mixed-media opera As Big as the Sky.

Thea Derks spoke to Noordegraaf.

Why did you write As Big as the Sky?

I have always been interested in architecture and was fascinated when China started building frantically for the Olympics in 2008. I decided to go and have a look. In my suitcase I carried Henrik Ibsen’s play The Master Builder, about an architect who spins intrigues all around him. I was also inspired by Madama Butterfly, toying with the idea of bringing the two themes together.

In China I researched different musical styles, and tried to fathom how the construction business functions. There I met the Dutch architect Neville Mars, who was writing a book on this very theme, The Chinese Dream. He suggested his co-author, the British playwright Adrian Hornsby, might be willing to write the libretto. Adrian proved to be a perfect fit, for he’d already done a lot of research on China, and we felt an instant click. Before starting on As Big as the Sky, we realized two multimedia projects: A.M. and UrWald.

How did Ai Weiwei get involved?

One day Adrian and I were discussing the designs for the opera in a London noodle-bar. Because I missed a Chinese element, we decided to ask Rem Koolhaas for advice, since he’s worked in China extensively. He proposed Ai Weiwei, pointing out that he’s also involved in architectural projects. I thought Ai was far beyond our reach, but he proved to be very accessible, and agreed to make the set design and play a role in the film.

You live on two different continents, how did you work together?

I visited Weiwei in his studio and we discussed the options. I did not want a literal rendering of the locations, because the décor has a dramaturgical function. So we wouldn’t need proper doors, or an actual lift to shift the scene from the Chinese village on ground level to Sem’s office on an elevated level. Ai was eager to mix sculptural shapes and video projection, and showed me age-old Chinese jade figurines in which a square is combined with a circle. Round forms traditionally represent the sky, square ones the earth.

This concept was ideally suited to visualize Sem’s dream of the dome covering the village and turning it into a camera obscura by a hole in the top. Ai designed a structure that, in the course of the opera, is gradually turned upside down, reflecting what’s happening to the village itself. At the same time it becomes a threatening entity itself, taking up more and more space and forcing the performers out of its way. Sem’s original dream has turned into a nightmare.

When Sem realizes his principals are turning his architectural marvel into a tourist trap, he seems to rebel, yet in the end he complies. How are we to understand this?

Sem is a complex character. He’s a young architect who dreams of building the ultimate structure that taunts everyone’s imagination. He doesn’t understand why his superiors should wish to destroy the original houses and replace them by new ‘authentic’ ones. He’s even more mystified by the enthusiasm with which the villagers salute this idea. And to his utter confusion his girlfriend Mulan can be a traditional Chinese opera singer one moment, and a dazzlingly sexy pop star the next, twittering photographs of their intimate moments to millions of followers.

In spite of his initial opposition, Sem eventually finishes the dome, because he has a deep longing to impress the world. But by giving in to his superiors he dies, figuratively speaking. His original enthusiasm has been crushed in the face of reality, and in the end he is a broken man. His tragedy is that he’s not on a par with the people around him: he may vent his protests to his principals, but has to do as they tell him. Even his lover Mulan out- classes him with her millions of fans.

Of course Sem could have opted out of the project, but by staying on, his drama becomes all the more poignant: it’s a personal tragedy. When the dome is festively inaugurated, he’s standing on the stage, looking up at the film screen where Mulan sings her ceremonial aria. She inhabits a different domain now, he has become the spectator of his own work. Mind you, I’m not passing judgment: I think the concept of authenticity is different for each of us, it is not universal, but defined in one’s own mind.

© Thea Derks 2015