Dthe rizzle falls from the mush-colored sky as I rush from the station to an abandoned gasometer in an industrial area on the wrong side of Rotterdam. Inside, however, the sun never ceases to shine. I climb the steps to a circular promenade and look down. Below, more than 20 vacationers sunbathe under a cloudless sky. The beach may be fake, the sunlight artificial, and the dress color code relentlessly pastel, but at least the seagulls won’t do dive-bombing to sting anyone’s picnic.
Welcome to Sun & Sea, the opera-performance imagined by three women which, since winning Lithuania the Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, has toured Europe and the America. It arrives in London later this month to rave reviews. The New York Times wrote, “In an hour of dangerously sweet melodies, [the work] manages to animate a panoramic cast of characters whose stories coalesce into a portrait of an apocalyptic climate crisis.
A couple is playing badminton, two young women are making sand sculptures, and I find myself fascinated by another lost in her holiday reading, The Ethical Slut, and a man I can see will never crack this sudoku puzzle. It might feel like the summer vacation you’ll have in a few weeks; or it could be your idea of the circle of hell that Dante didn’t dare imagine.
Sun & Sea is presented as an opera but the music is recorded, there is no conductor and the singers mostly sing into discreet microphones while lying on beach towels. The melodies are soft and float inside the gasometer. This is how the world will end, not with fanfare but with languorous, humming siren songs that desensitize us to our fate.
After the performance in Rotterdam, I told the three women behind Sun & Sea that I was dreading the show. I can’t think of more dismal words than ‘climate change opera’. “Oh no!” says librettist Vaiva Grainytė. “That would be awful. We never wanted to write an opera about climate change. Nor to judge people who are on vacation. But we wanted to reflect on the paradoxes of our way of life.
“We made it a rule to avoid certain words like ‘plastic’ in the booklet, as we didn’t want to be too didactic. Nobody likes being preached to. Instead, she and her collaborators approach their heavy theme with a light touch. The booklet goes so far as to allow vacationers to take perverse pleasure in oceans choked with waste. In Song of Admiration, for example, a woman discovers underwater beauty amid rubbish: “Emerald red bags, bottles and corks – the sea has never had so many colors! The creators aren’t entirely ironic, just perversely focusing on the benefits of environmental apocalypse.
Director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė says that the fundamental idea of Sun & Sea was that audiences would despise acting. The trio had been struck by a performance of a work at the Guggenheim Museum in New York where the public lined up the railings and surveyed the stage below. “We wanted to create a dehumanized angle, looking at ourselves as if we were another species,” says Grainytė. “Audience walks along the gates to get different perspectives on the action,” adds Barzdžiukaitė.
But I was uncomfortable looking down on the performers as if they were sunseekers in a mock Torremolinos or Faliraki. The last thing I want to feel is a smug operator staring at his proverbial Eurotrash grilling telescope below. “We don’t look down on people in that sense,” Lapelytė replies. “We are all involved. Who are we to look down on people who have 10 days of vacation in the sun doing jobs they hate? »
This generous vision is what enabled Sun & Sea to overcome my fears. I found myself sympathizing with even the most unattractive of characters, a workaholic wealthy businessman. “I really don’t feel like I can let myself be slowed down,” he sings. “Because my colleagues will despise me. They will say that I have no willpower. And I will become a loser in my own eyes.
And then the chorus sung in chorus: “Exhaustion, exhaustion, exhaustion, exhaustion…” His feast is therefore a welcome temporary death, a 24/7 Sabbath from work.
His wife, on the next deck chair, undermines this, singing as if the vacation itself is laborious, and runs through a list of meaningless experiences. She sings how her baby boy is eight and a half years old and has already swum in the Red, White, Black, Aegean and Mediterranean seas and has already visited two of the world’s oceans. “And we will visit the others this year!” she sings in ridiculous pride.
Sun & Sea was inspired by many things, but mostly by an epiphany Grainytė had while walking in the Lithuanian woods. “I found a chanterelle in December. It shouldn’t have been possible. In the opera, this walk is transmuted into the song of a woman who, after complaining about dog shit in the sand and vulgar people around her, remembers finding chanterelle mushrooms during a a walk like Grainytė had done. “The end of December, how come?” she sings, adding: “As grandma liked to say: The end of the world!”
Terrible things have happened before in beach operas – Aschenbach expiring without mourning on his Lido deckchair; a small-town mob hunting suspected child killer Peter Grimes – but nothing as obliquely heartbreaking as that. Mortality and apocalypse haunt the holiday scene. A woman mourns her ex, who drowned while swimming too far on vacation. Another sings of a chance romance that blossomed at an airport when flights were grounded by volcanic ash.
A third cries when she learns that the coral is dying, the fish are disappearing and the bees are falling dead from the sky. But in the next verse, Grainytė’s surreal imagination takes flight, and the woman imagines how 3D printing could replace everything we’ve destroyed. “3D corals never go away! 3D animals never lose their horns! 3D food is priceless! It’s a wildly winning vision that goes crazy when she imagines that she, too, could survive her own death. “3D lives for me forever!” she sings.
What is it about? “The dream we cling to this technology can save us,” says Grainytė.
Is there something typically Lithuanian in Sun & Sea? “Melancholy,” says Lapelytė. The others agree. When the show premiered in a disused multi-storey car park in Vilnius, they never suspected that this expression of Lithuanian sadness would become such a successful export and source of patriotic pride. “We expected it to appear only in Lithuania, like our previous collaboration.” It was a lyrical indictment of consumerism seen from the perspective of supermarket cashiers, titled Have a Good Day!
Sun & Sea includes random elements, such as children, dogs, and water (an off-stage supply allows performers to return to the beach wet, like they’ve just bathed) that all look like accidents waiting to happen. In Switzerland, a Yorkshire terrier caused particular havoc. Not all singers are happy either – “they fear that children and dogs will send sand into their lungs,” says Lapelytė. “They also don’t like to sing while lying down, but they have to.”
The show mutates as it travels the world with a largely changing cast of singers and extras. At the suggestion of a singer in Rome, one of the couples became gay. “It’s not about producing an object that remains unchanged over time,” explains Lapelytė. “We see ourselves as collaborators with performers. Maybe women work differently than men in that sense.
Even sand can look and feel different from place to place. For next week’s performance in Reykjavik, for example, the beach will be made up of locally sourced volcanic ash. In Dresden, one of the German extras spent the show building small walls of sand to keep other bathers in their areas. What will the extras do in London, the women ask me. Probably not clean up the mess from their attack dogs, I suggest.
At the end of the Rotterdam performance, something curious happens. The audience is kindly asked to leave while the sunbathing singers remain on stage. What happened to the encores and applause? This is not opera as we have known it. A civil servant, bringing us back from the beach of the gasometer to reality, explains: “You are not applauding the end of the world.