As Big as the Sky

opera for (Chinese) soprano, mezzo, (Chinese) tenor, baritone,
chamber ensemble, sheng, sound tracks and video projections

duration: 110 minutes

Martijn Cornet, baritone
Hé Yi, soprano
Merlijn Runia, mezzo
Zhang Bo, tenor

Asko|Schönberg ensemble, Bas Wiegers, conductor

Arnoud Noordegraaf: concept, composition, film, director
Adrian Hornsby: libretto
Ai Weiwei, set design and film

World premiere: June 11 2015 Holland Festival, Amsterdam

produced by Roland Spekle/Barooni

Inspired by the rise of China, As Big as the Sky confronts the astonishing wave of building that is sweeping across the country, and the dramatic collisions it creates between traditional culture, globalizing forces and new forms of media; and between a once European world, and a new modernity with Chinese characteristics.

As Big as the Sky merges Western Romanticism with Chinese opera, and combines these onstage with an innovative use of film, mixed-media, and original installation art.


European architect Sem Aers is working hard. He has to, given the speed at which the project’s moving. The speed and the scale. And the nature of it all ...

A commission to design a fantastical megastructure in a remote village in China has lured Sem into visions of unearthly splendour. His client Wu Cai, who grew up humbly among the village’s cows and rice paddies, is now one of China’s fresh generation of self-made millionaires. Returning to his former home to realise a boyhood dream, Wu calls for a monument to be built — both to himself, and to the rise of the world’s newest superpower. It requires the creation of an architecture that is itself dreamlike, utopian, transformative.

Sem conceives of the world’s largest dome. The building will engulf the entire village, while a hole puncturing the crown will turn it into a giant camera obscura, thus throwing a projection of the sky down across the village’s roofs and fields. It is at once magically beautiful and strangely dark.

Working and living high among the beams of the half-composed structure, Sem communicates with the various global parties by videophone. The head of the architecture office in Europe is worried about the Western press. They accuse the dome of hubris, and of devastating local culture. In the meantime Wu impresses the need for it to attract tourism, proposing the original village be bulldozed and rebuilt as an “authentic” Chinese village for the staging of traditional opera. The opening of the dome is set to feature — in brand new “ancient-style” surroundings — star singer and national celebrity Qin Mulan.

Tortured simultaneously by his grand vision for the dome, and the fear that it is turning into something else, Sem struggles desperately for a sense of self. While he is clawing through the throes of a neurotic egotism, Qin Mulan arrives on site for a rehearsal, and sings the opening aria of a Chinese love opera. The extraordinary beauty of her voice, and the seemingly authentic culture she embodies, captivates Sem, and offers a note of truth in so much resounding madness. He instantly falls in love with her, and with a private ideal of Chineseness.

Mulan though, beneath the layers of opera makeup, is an uncannily modern woman, as well as an powerful media personality. Celebrity coupledom sweeps them up and their love blooms in outrageous colours: Sem promising, through architecture, to throw the sky at her feet; Mulan posting photos online, and tweeting to her millions of followers.

The villagers too are enthusiasts of the modern, and readily embrace plans to remodel the village. Things are thrown into chaos however when an elderly woman refuses to leave her home, creating a “nail house” within the demolition site. Wu Cai and various local officials apply increasing pressure, but the media, already eddying, whirls itself into a hurricane of ecstatic criticism, tearing at the very future of the project and invoking the question: if the dome fails, then what of Mulan’s love? Sem’s fears become monstrous, and his actions too, as he watches his naive Romanticism being subsumed within a greater marriage of global commercial and political forces. These are the ones that are truly reshaping contemporary expression, and creating the basis for a new seat of power in the East.

Ultimately the dream may be realised, but in a waking mouth it tastes different. Sem watches as Mulan comes on stage to sing at last the final act of the opera that he first saw her rehearsing ...


China is currently experiencing the greatest building wave in the history of human civilisation. The associated construction frenzy, consuming up to half the world’s metals and cement, positions architecture firmly at the centre of China’s story. But more than this, it bears witness to a profound 21st century shift. After hundreds of years of Western dominance in the practice of cities, a new form of commercial gravity is drawing the future of urbanism east.

An attitude of appetitive enthusiasm when faced with the future is perhaps the most volatile new component in the clichéd “East meets West” relationship. For decades the West has been aware of the difference between speedy Asian growth and the grinding progress implied by its own “mature democracy”. Since the crisis of 2008 however, and with the partial collapse of Europe’s own house (a process that itself seems to be taking place in slow motion), this feeling of maturity has slipped into a fear of being old, and a sense of existing at the end of an era, in a context of weakening institutions, ecological apocalypse, a hysterical media, and an ever-more threatened collective dysphoria. The future seems to whisper to the West of exhaustion and demise.

In stark contrast, China seems to love the future, and to want only to plunge into it. The country has a febrile and almost utopian quality. China is uniquely dream-driven, and a pervasive optimism, even in the midst of chaotic upheavals, leads the country’s passionate embrace of modernity and whatever brings it on — notably building and mass architecture, and technology and new media. This leads to terrific volumes of the new in China, and perhaps most striking for Western visitors is the sense that, when journeying through a “developing country”, they find themselves to be less modern and less sophisticated than the environments they encounter. This reverses generations of colonial understanding, with psychological implications that will reverberate through the decades to come.

Yet the breakneck pace of development in China has created a jagged landscape, with growing wealth disparities and a yawning rural-urban divide. Moving between cities and villages involves travelling decades in time — a process with which China’s hundreds of millions of migrant workers (the backbone of both the construction industry and of Chinese exports) are utterly familiar. Moreover, as the city moves into the villages, questionable land practices, inadequate regulation and accountability, shoddy construction, and an essential obscurity over what due process, rights and ownership really mean, creates a shadowy environment — one full of invisible walls and savage reversals, where yes can suddenly become no, white black, two and two five, or even a million, and where things can change as rapidly, and with as little explanation, as they do in a dream.

As Big as the Sky takes place upon the moving centre where these forces all converge. The village where the opera is set crashes against China’s great building wave as Wu Cai arrives with his massive construction/ demolition project. With the appearance of a foreign architect it is instantly internationalised, and as a European with an inevitable nostalgia for Romanticism, Sem is inspired by the potential for dreaming — for utopia — that China seems to offer. Yet paradoxically this binds him to the past, and terrified of his own shadow, he is led into a fetishization of a Chineseness that is anachronistic, and ultimately untenable. The speed with which things are turning into their opposite confounds him, as he finds his dreams tossed easily among the greater commercializing forces of real estate, profit-politics, celebrity culture, and tourism.

The media, and its new forms in China, is a critical agency throughout, as the battle for what is authentic and what fake, what is destruction and what architecture, and what is love, are all compulsively perceived and reperceived through various cultural lenses upon a global stage. Indeed as the media’s own contemporary convulsions so frequently ask, what are any of these things but perception?

As Big as the Sky is a remarkably ambitious modern opera. It is a penetrating comment on some of the most vital global themes of the new century. At the same time, and in the great tradition of dramatic art, it is a passionate story of doomed love.


As Big As The Sky opposes, layers and merges two specific and very contrasting musical genres: Chinese traditional Kunqu opera and European Wagnerian late Romanticism. The protagonist Sem is represented by the late Romantic style, echoing Europe’s current state of being mired in the mud of its own cultural history, and seemingly unable to pull itself out or move forward. When Mulan first appears she introduces traditional Chinese opera, and in so doing displays a form of natural authenticity that Sem finds irresistible. After their opposing styles have met and fused, Mulan moves to a modern “poppy” version of Chinese traditional songs, creating a new and unbridged gap with Sem.

Somewhere in the unchartered middle of all these styles, the opera forges its own unique idiom, binding the musical lines with narrative and sample-techniques to create a very 21st century composition.

Staging, film, art direction & costume design

Film is used as an integral part of the opera, exploring the multilayered visual worlds in which the story takes place, including architectural drawings and renderings, Skype conferences among the various parties involved, twitter feeds, Chinese television and global media sources, and the astonishing contemporary landscape of China itself.

Niels Vis, Merel van 't Hullenaar and Ai Weiwei, Beijing March 2015. image © Rick Stout

Press Quotes

VPRO magazine preview, May 15 — spread featuring an elaborate interview with Arnoud (Dutch)


NRC Handelsblad review, June 15 — "Ai Weiwei as real estate tycoon in clever opera" ★★★★ (Dutch)


Bachtrack online magazine review, June 14 — "Noordegraaf and Ai's musical theatre captivates" ★★★★


KindaMuzik magazine review June 12 — "To tilt in flux" (Dutch)


Volkskrant preview June 10 — "The Sky is not the limit" (Dutch)


Gonzo Circus magazine review, June 12 — "making a statement without being moralising" (Dutch)


The Wire magazine review July 2015 — "a 21st century comedy of errors" (English)

More images

Live performance photos

Test build and film shoot

research, development, and Beijing.. 2007—2015

Video excerpts

Excerpt of the "Opening Ceremony" aria, sung by He Yi


Full live video, recorded on 14 June 2015, Holland Festival Amsterdam


Arnoud Noordegraaf explaining about the opera on NPO television


Wu Cai's Total Solution commercial


radio item about the opera "Vrije Geluiden" on Radio 4 VPRO (starts at 21:20)


Social media

As Big as the Sky facebook page, Arnoud on Instagram and Twitter


music, sound design, direction, film
Arnoud Noordegraaf

libretto, screenplay
Adrian Hornsby

set design, film
Ai Weiwei

Bas Wiegers

art direction
Studio VTH&V
Merel van ’t Hullenaar & Niels Vis

costume design
Merel van ’t Hullenaar i.c.w. Niels Vis

light design
Marc Heinz

assistant director
Astrid van den Akker

deputy set designer
Bart Visser

assistant conductor
MaNOj Kamps

Janine Brogt

stage manager
Pieter Loman

performed by

Martijn Cornet, baritone

Hē Yí, soprano

Zhang Bo, tenor

Merlijn Runia, mezzo soprano


Mirjam Teepe, flute/piccolo

Daniël Boeke, clarinet/bass clarinet

Remko Edelaar, bassoon/contrabassoon

Jan Harshagen, horn

Frank Braafhart, trumpet

Ger de Zeeuw,  percussion

Niels Meliefste, percussion

Marijke van Kooten, violin

Bernadette Verhagen, viola

Doris Hochscheid, cello

James Oesi, double bass

Wu Wei sheng

Jelle Verstraten, samples

Cappella Amsterdam, choir ‘Skype scene’


Gerard Bouwhuis, Dante Boon, Alessandro Soccorsi

actors on film

William Sutton

Claudia Trajano Faria

Mary Louise Moher

Sue Ann Yeoh

Henk Zwart

Chiho Totogawa

Takashi Iwaoka

production film

Ilse de Graaf, Rikke de Waard
Fake Studio, Beijing
Stijn Hoekstra


Ewoud Bon


Evelien Emmens

Karin van der Hilst

Frank Lunenburg

Nat Miller

Tom Sanderman

Floor Scholten

Yonathan Stakenburg

Nico Weggemans

hair & make-up design

Susanna Peretz // Studio VTH&V

Geo Timmerman (assistant)

Atifa Sealiti (assistant)

costume maker

Bo Mulder (head)

Thera Hillenaar (assistant)

Jennifer Williams (assistant)


Bo Mulder (head)

Melanie Petrona (assistant)

Anna Lamberts (assistant)

prop maker

Judith Witteman

technical coordinator

Jeroen Frijters

light technician

Stijn van Bruggen

sound technician

Tom Gelissen

video technician

Bas Bus for Beamsystems

video editor and compositor

Vit Ruller

object and motion engineer

Roy Schilderman

translator Chinese

Qin Liwen

production manager

Ymkje Koopal


Roland Spekle


Holland Festival, Barooni, Asko|Schönberg

with support by

Ammodo, Fonds Podiumkunsten, Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst,

Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, Fonds voor Hedendaagse Muziek,

Adèle Wickert- fonds, Fontein Tuynhout Fonds, VSBfonds

world premiere

Amsterdam, 11 juni 2015

thanks to

Kameroperahuis Zwolle en Mulders en vandenBerk Architecten