Sun & Sea, at BAM.
Photo: Richard Termine / BAM
Watching someone else’s vacation has gone from hard to excruciating over the past couple of years. It is one of the sharp little knives that wields Sun & Sea, the long-running opera at BAM’s Fishman Space this weekend. For the five hour production (once in you can stay or go as you please), the stage was transformed into a realistic beach with 25 tons of sand sprawled from wall to wall. To see it, the audience must go to the balcony level of the small theater and stand well above the stage on all four sides, like visitors to an operating room or technicians in flies. You have to cling jealously to a balustrade to see the beach below, and there is something about this posture – so different from the usual princely sitting position of the spectator – which makes us look like poor relatives, wallflowers who must spy on the pleasures of others.
Lithuanian director and decorator Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė filled the beach with bodies, all reading, snacking and passing the time, a row of lounge chairs forming one corner, a parasol thrown into another. Thirteen are singers; the others are extras ready to move and kick the sand. The behavior of the distribution, naturalistic and constantly evolving (although the libretto by Vaiva Grainytė itself Is repeat on a one hour loop), runs at a slow pace on vacation days. A couple discuss whether it’s time to go in the water. The children are chatting and playing. A dog is taken (dragged) for a walk. And while people are lounging on their pastel napkins, they sometimes sing too.
The songs are usually brief glimpses into the mind of a sleepy person: a man thinking about how he met his lover, or a workaholic worried about whether exhaustion is really a real concern. Grainytė’s lyrics have been translated into English, but it is still difficult to understand the vocals as they follow Lina Lapelyte’s non-melodic hopscotch compositions. Sometimes the language is crystal clear – a man remembers the volcano that interrupted his vacation plans, and we hear every word – other times we have to check the printed booklet to understand. Lapelyte’s sounds are invariably chime and calm, so it’s surprising that some thoughts are heated, even frightened. “Our swimsuits are filled with algae! the whole room sings in chorus, complaining that the ocean is turning green, blooming with eutrophication. As the sound overwhelms you, it’s easy to miss that the world around these sun worshipers is poisoned, willful, inhospitable: “Staying ashore is strongly advised!” You shouldn’t leave your children unattended! The dazed laziness of music infects them and infects us too, so we can’t always understand these warnings.
Initially, Sun & Sea was a commission for the Lithuanian pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2019. In Venice, a city literally submerged by cruise ships, the problem of the vacation industrial complex would surely have been acute. Time has only refined that perk: The Biennale performance came almost a year before the pandemic-era beach vacation became … what? Out of reach? Irresponsible? The alone responsible holidays? While they were building the production, Barzdžiukaitė and his team were clearly thinking about how ‘hobbies’ contain and erase evidence of the disasters happening all around us, and the crises that have arisen have only made their arguments stronger. relevant.
The title joke Sun & Sea it’s that we don’t really see one or the other. We see sand, we seem to feel the heat, but the sun and the ocean are themselves basically “off the stage” – these are the temptations, pressures and threats that people take for granted. The sea is full of ripples and eddies – “Acid waves, ivory foam” sings a woman, telling us about her ex-husband who drowned – and the libretto begins and ends with a woman singing on Sun cream. “Protection for hypersensitive skin,” she sings as she read the label, and our minds drift from melanoma screenings to Hawaii and Indonesia, places where certain types of sunscreen kill coral reefs. Jealousy turns to revulsion: all the teeming life on stage begins to switch, under your weary eyes, into the wriggling life on a microscope slide, crushed by our distant gaze. The exaggerated length of the evening is itself part of the show’s indictment – it gives us plenty of time to get fed up with humans and their trash.
The show is about questioning pleasure, and I think it’s intentional that it somehow ruins your night. Granted, your own physical discomfort is part of the show after about half an hour (depending on your lower back health); your ability to extract the story, drama, and intrigue from the micro-events will indicate how interested you are in the events below. The music is sober, only becomes luxuriant during collective choral moments when the whole room rings. And the more the lyrics remind you of everything that’s wrong with the world, the more the sight of such extravagant inactivity will bristle you. Maybe it’s not just an opera? Maybe it’s aversion therapy for our leisure-obsessed generation? You walk into the show with an enviable image of ease – and then walk away when you can’t take it anymore.
Sun & Sea is at BAM Fishman until September 26.