After Life, Michel van der Aa

Asko/Schönberg Ensemble, Barbican

15th May, 2010

A Café at the end of the Universe...

The phrase ‘semi-staged performance’ are words that can strike fear into the heart of many an opera goer, hundreds of years of elaborate stage and costume design commuted to one man with an umbrella and another with an amusing hat. It also seems to mean (in the world of contemporary opera at least): this work isn’t good enough/it is too expensive to put on another fully staged performance, so here is the skeletal version in which the characters have to pick their way through the orchestra watching out for rogue percussion instruments and over-eager second bassoonists. I have been to many semi-staged performances and many of them have lacked any of the spectacle and drama which you presume they may have initially had when fully staged – unfortunately the large proportion of them have been at the Barbican. Unfortunately the large proportion of them has never had a full performance in the UK before that night.

My hopes were not high.

However if I was to say one thing about this production of Michel van der Aa’s After Life (2005-06, rev. 2009-10) it would be that a great deal of thought and care had been given into making this feel less like a semi-staged performance and more like the real thing, at all times the space had been used in an intelligent and thought-provoking manner giving the illusion of something much grander than just the Barbican stage. The Asko/Schönberg Ensemble (under their conductor Otto Tausk) were placed rather unobtrusively in the centre of the stage, though not fanned out like some arcane battle plan with the requisite arsenal of percussion that other contemporary theatrical works seem to require. Around them and around the stage were the many props and, well, semi-staging that suggested the afterlife of the opera’s title – all available space was taken up with what can only be described, lovingly, as junk. Yes, the characters had to plot their course through this myriad of detritus throughout the evening, but then if you worked in a giant warehouse filled with thousands of people’s lifetime possessions you would tread gingerly as well.

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Photos by: Mark Allan

What helped to make this feel even less semi-staged was the use of giant screens behind the stage on to which various images and films were projected throughout the performance: some to the benefit of the opera, some to the detriment. What undeniably helped to enhance this feeling of space, and ingenious use of space, was the projection of more junk on to the screens, giving the feeling of endless amounts of stuff going on further than the eye can see. The combination of staging and images seemed to make sense – perhaps this was, at last, the first opera that would work instinctively well in this semi-staged environment.

Did it work? Yes. Was it any good? Debatable.

Having approved of the staging, I actually found myself warming quite nicely to both the concept and the libretto. The idea of a way-station between heaven and earth to which the dead come to be processed by choosing one memory to take with them was neat, and just the right length and scope of ambition for a ninety minute operatic work. It led to a nice level of interaction between the recently deceased and the staff of this inter-celestial service station, always with that nagging question as to the state of being of the staff – surely they were similarly unprocessed as well? The libretto was fine and generally passed by without incident. Incidentally it was written by the composer – maybe the first instance of a libretto written by a composer not being awful? Answers on a postcard to Operaticus please...

However there were two key elements of After Life which I warmed to less and troubled me deeply, mainly as they were pretty fundamental to the work and van der Aa’s conception of the piece: the use of pre-recorded film and the music.

The dramatic action was interspersed with six ‘video documentaries’ by four people, each giving vivid testaments of important moments of their lives: for example one was an anti-apartheid follower from South Africa, and another a WWII Jewish emigrant from Holland. Nothing wrong with that, except that the drama in these accounts was so strong and so real that it seemed to dwarf the action taking place on stage. I found myself caring much more about what these characters had to say than the operatic characters below them. The accounts were given in plain speech with no music or cinematic wizardry to enhance them; the effect was an incredibly visceral experience. It also brought into question the role of the operatic sections – surely when confronted by people speaking in a day-to-day manner it makes us question the ridiculous and surreal nature of people singing in a highly stylized manner? Why are they doing it? When watching opera we suspend our disbelief and throw ourselves willingly into this world of heightened emotion, where characters sing impassionate arias and declamatory recitatives. The combination of these two polar-opposites, real life and emotional fantasy jarred greatly for me, and I constantly found myself looking negatively at the operatic sections.

It also made me question van der Aa’s music and his musical language, for the music of After Life failed to arouse many emotions in me, rather passing me by really. Yes, some of it was reasonably pretty with well-heard chords and sonorities and conversely there were moments of grating dissonance that seemed somewhat out of kilter with the action, but the overall impression I got was that the music was somehow second fiddle to everything else in this opera – almost as if it was an afterthought. Knowing that van der Aa studied as both a recording engineer and as a film director (as well as a composer you’ll be glad to know) helps to paint this picture for me – somewhere in the mix the music got lost and more time was spent on the conceptual trappings rather than the ‘soul’ of the opera. It was a shame.

That being said the cast did exceptionally well with what they were given, Roderick Williams and Claron McFadden were excellent as usual, especially Williams’ acting ability which really helped the final section of the opera. Yvette Bonner was very good as Sarah (looking resplendent in her quasi-air hostess uniform) as was Richard Suart as the befuddled Mr Walter. I was less convinced by the roles of Ilana and Bryna (Margriet van Reisen and Helena Rasker respectively) though I suspect this may be down to undeveloped secondary roles rather than bad performances. The Asko / Schönberg Ensemble were very competent as was Tausk, and special praise must be reserved for keyboard player Ernst Munneke who dealt manfully with some pretty fiendish harpsichord and organ writing.

So, all in all, an entertaining and thought-provoking evening with good things and bad things in equal measure. You might be interested to know that After Life is based on a film of the same name by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. I suspect it might be better and I’m off to check it out.

Bottom line: Exceptional performance and staging, but music is an afterthought in After Life


Duncan Ferguson


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Production Credits

Video-Script and Direction: Michel van der Aa
Costumes: Robby Duiveman costumes
Musical Direction: Otto Tausk


Chief: Claron McFadden
Bryna: Helena Rasker
Ilana: Margriet van Reijsen
Sarah: Yvette Bonner
Mr. Walter: Richard Suart
Aiden: Roderick Williams