A day of opera at the beach evokes the climate crisis
Twenty-one tons of sand turns the Brooklyn Academy of Music into a day at the beach for the staging of the global warming opera Sun and Sea.
NEW YORK – How do you turn a Brooklyn performance space into a day at the beach?
Answer: Carry 21 tons of New Jersey sand in 50-pound bags and throw them on the ground – all 840 of them.
That’s how the Brooklyn Academy of Music production team set the stage for an award-winning opera on global warming, “Sun and Sea,” which will premiere in the US this month.
Created by three Lithuanian artists, the hour-long opera features 13 singers sitting or lying on beach blankets under a scorching sun. They represent characters identified in the libretto – sung here in English – by generic titles like Wealthy Mommy and Workaholic. Non-singing extras fill the stage, building sandcastles, playing cards, walking a dog or just taking a walk.
“It started with the image of a beach viewed from above and the people who gathered there,” said director Rugilė Barzdžiukaité, speaking from Lithuania via Zoom. “We see them in their very fragile state because they are half naked… just like the cosmic body of the Earth which is also very fragile. And the beach gets hotter and hotter every year. This is how it came together.
Once they chose global warming as their theme, the question became how to explore it through characters who are mostly oblivious to the issue.
“We were wondering how to write about climate change because it’s such a big and anonymous topic,” said librettist Vaiva Grainyté. “So for these characters and singers, it’s like different clouds of thought, inner monologues about very mundane and simple things.”
But disturbing clues of impending doom are creeping in.
An example cited by Grainyté: A lady complains about messy dogs at the beach, but also mentions that she found three edible mushrooms out of season in December. “This little paradox kind of gives an idea of the disorder in nature. The feeling of tragedy and apocalypse is very present but it is subtle, not direct.
“There is no such thing as ‘Oh my God the world is about to end’,” she added.
Lina Lapelyté, who composed the music, said: “We wanted to have this very bright beach, almost too bright to believe that it is possible.
“And so the music is also very light,” she said. “It’s not heavy, poppy enough. Sometimes it might remind you of a pop song you know, but it’s actually none of the songs you know. Musical accompaniment is provided by a recorded phonogram synthesizer.
The opera premiered in Lithuania in 2017 and was invited to the 2019 Venice Biennale, where it won the Golden Lion for Best National Presentation.
“Rarely has an environmental message been so subtly, humorous, conveyed in a work of art,” enthusiastic critic Igor Toronyi-lalic in British magazine The Spectator.
As in Venice, the BAM production in the intimate Fishman space will have the audience – limited to 100 people at a time – standing and watching the beach from a balcony that surrounds the stage on all four sides. The actors will rehearse the show five times a day, with spectators free to come and go as they please.
“A large part of the audience that will come, they already know the subject,” said Lapelyté. “What we hope people get out of it is a feeling of oneness, that we’re all in this thing together.”
Following the Brooklyn race, September 15-26, the show will travel to Philadelphia, Bentonville, Arkansas and Los Angeles.
The singers will travel with the production, but each location provides its own sand. BAM got its 21 tonnes from a community in southern Jersey whose beach had been pushed five miles inland by erosion. This is enough to cover the 57x46ft stage with about 2 inches. At the end of the race, the sand will be sucked up and washed away by a company that recycles it for construction sites and other uses.