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
program notes & interview
(Ai Weiwei's set exhibited as a stand-alone opera video installation)
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
Excerpt of the "Opening Ceremony" aria, sung by He Yi
Cuts from the live performance on 14 June 2015, Holland Festival Amsterdam
Arnoud Noordegraaf explaining about the opera on NPO television
Wu Cai (Ai Weiwei) "Total Solution" commercial
radio item about the opera "Vrije Geluiden" on Radio 4 VPRO (starts at 21:20)
music, sound design, direction, film
set design, film
Merel van ’t Hullenaar & Niels Vis
Merel van ’t Hullenaar i.c.w. Niels Vis
Astrid van den Akker
deputy set designer
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
Claudia Trajano Faria
Mary Louise Moher
Sue Ann Yeoh
Ilse de Graaf, Rikke de Waard
Fake Studio, Beijing
Karin van der Hilst
hair & make-up design
Susanna Peretz // Studio VTH&V
Geo Timmerman (assistant)
Atifa Sealiti (assistant)
Bo Mulder (head)
Thera Hillenaar (assistant)
Jennifer Williams (assistant)
Bo Mulder (head)
Melanie Petrona (assistant)
Anna Lamberts (assistant)
Stijn van Bruggen
Bas Bus for Beamsystems
video editor and compositor
object and motion engineer
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
Amsterdam, 11 juni 2015
Kameroperahuis Zwolle en Mulders en vandenBerk Architecten