Uploading the mind on the operatic stage – Interview with Michel van der Aa

Michel van der Aa portrait by © Sarah Wijzenbeek

On Thursday 29 July, Upload (2019-20), the new film opera by Michel van der Aa receives its stage premiere at the Bregenz Festival, starring soprano Julia Bullock and baritone Roderick Williams, with Otto Tausk conducting the Cologne-based ensemble MusikFabrik, in production directed by the composer. 

Co-commissioned by the Bregenz Festival and Ensemble MusikFabrik, alongside Dutch National Opera, Park Avenue Armory and Cologne Opera, Upload explores the possibility of attaining eternal life by uploading a digital version of ourselves, and investigates what this means for our ’humanness’, our identity, and our relationships with others.

Upload completes an operatic triptych begun with After Life (2005-06) and continued with Sunken Garden (2011-12). 

”In Upload, we are dealing with this place between Heaven and Earth, between life and death. In the process of a mind upload your life freezes, at least in physical terms, and you start looking back at your physical life, and sort of live on forever. It is an end-point that continues infinitely, which is, for me, dramaturgically speaking, a very interesting viewpoint”, the composer reflects the core ideas of the opera in a Zoom call from his studio.  

”I’m a bit of a geek and I love following technology and science. I’ve been reading about the idea of mind uploading for a while now. I started thinking about it more seriously three or four years ago, and then, about two years ago, in more concrete terms about turning it into an opera. I worked with two wonderful young dramaturges. The three of us started researching the topic and combining a lot of material, and from that material I started making the libretto, and the piece took off from there.”

Conveying the libretto into a piece of music theatre called forth new means of expression and new technical solutions.

”One of the things that came from the libretto was that we had to find a way to visualise the upload. The story is about a father and a daughter, and the father decides to upload himself, without his daughter knowing that he is doing so. At the beginning of the opera, we, as an audience, are confronted with the upload like the daughter is. It is, in fact, one of the first times she meets him. 

So, we started doing research in order to see, how we could visualise that in real time. My dream was to make a real-time avatar of the singer onstage, Roderick Williams, and this avatar needed to be able to interact with Julia Bullock, who plays the daughter. And this was the biggest challenge, technically, because there’s a lot of technology to do motion capturing and real-life modelling, but it all takes a lot of time and there’s a lot of lag, if you do so live. So we had to start from scratch. 

We invited two collaborators to come up with new ideas, and we ended up going with one of them, and they designed new software and hardware system that allowed us to do what we wanted to do. This was a big conceptual idea, but also, a very important core idea for me, because I really wanted the audience to connect to this digital entity on the screen projections. Sometimes when you see the see both the live singer and his digital alternate, it is almost like a puppet player playing. This kind of dual mirroring is something very interesting.”

In addition to new technical solutions, there are fundamental ethical undercurrents at play in the new opera. 

”In Upload we find out that there are a lot of ethical consequences of uploading yourself, especially if the people around you don’t do it. Your daughter grows older, but you yourself don’t grow older; what do you do? 

In addition, one of the themes in the opera deals with removing traumas from your personality in the uploading process. In that case, are you still the same person, or do you need the traumas to be who you are. Do memories and events in our lives shape our personalities and shape who we are? There’s a lot of questions about identity. Do we need a body to be human? 

We don’t give answers to them in the opera but we pose the questions. And we hope the audiences will walk out and keep thinking about them.”

A scene from Upload with Julia Bullock (the daughter) and the digital avatar of Roderick Williams (the father). © Marco Borggreve

Incorporating film into the fabric of music theatre goes way back in the van der Aa oeuvre. The film serves as an extension to the physical space onstage, and it also provides the composer with the possibility of introducing new characters on the film that can interact with singers onstage. 

”The film cast for Upload includes some amazing actors, such as Ashley Zukerman who’s now in the new Dan Brown series The Lost Symbol, just coming out, and Katja Herbers, who was in Westworld, as well as Sam West from The Crown, whom I’ve worked with before.

In a way, I was very lucky that we were shooting in the time of Covid, since a lot of these actors couldn’t work at the time and were in Holland actually, so they were able to work on our shoots. So it was a blessing in disguise. And I was equally blessed with these two amazing live singers, Julia Bullock and Roderick Williams. 

I’ve been working with Roderick for fifteen years now. He’s been in most of my operas. With Julia, it has been the first time, and I loved the experience! She’s an amazing performer. Together they had a great click as a father and daughter. It’s been one of those occasions, where everything seems to come together.

We’ve all been so happy to be able to work again here in Netherlands, under strict covid rules, with masks and cleaning and all the usual stuff, but nevertheless, we were able to work, which was amazing, although we could not actually perform the opera. But we were able to make a film version of it as an alternative.”

Following the stage premiere performances at Bregenz Festival, Upload will be staged at the Dutch National Opera in October. The film version was premiered on 16 July, on demand for subscribers by Medici TV. For online audiences in the Netherlands, the film production can be streamed also via Dutch National Opera and Ballet website.  

”For us, it was really good to dive into the material even more in the course of the production of the film version. Since the cameras so close to the actors, we had to make the emotions and the whole dramaturgical arch really very subtle. I think, in the end, the piece grew a lot because of the film-making. And now we have a wonderful document that we can show.”

Fusing together music, stage and film results in constantly changing relationships between the three layers at play. 

”While I am writing, I try to juggle with these layers at the same time. I will decide, for each section, not only what I will compose and how it is going to sound, but also how it will look like and how it will interact between the layers. For example, I may decide that this is the scene that needs to focus really on the music and the film, and the staging should take the back seat. Or I can decide to only show the film and have the singers in more auxiliary roles, things like that. In the end, it is about constantly changing the foreground and the background, as well as the roles of these three layers. 

Sometimes musical ideas come from the visual ideas and vice versa. It is a construct of three layers that completely alters all the time within the opera.”

Creating an opera involves intense collaboration between the performers, which enables the composer to have some flexibility in the process. 

”There was a wonderful collaboration of give and take and inspiring each other in the process of making Upload happen. That’s really what I love about making an opera; you do it together, it is not just one person deciding everything. Although I have many hats, I still need the artistic team, I need the singers, the orchestra and the conductor to go to this adventure and make it all work. 

I work with the singers quite intensively in the beginning, in order to get into their voice. I study their recordings and watch their concert performances on YouTube. In a way, they influence how I write for them. 

Also during the rehearsal process, things change. When we start working together, I still alter things. I am very open to tweak things, if necessary, to enhance the score, which has also happened now, especially with Julia, as we worked together for the very first time. I had to learn her voice and her stage persona.

I start with a complete score and a complete concept for the staging and editing the film. Going into the rehearsals with that, during the first week, it usually starts to evolve a little bit. Things are getting tweaked and sharpened. I cut out some stuff and edit some stuff. It has a lot to do with the timing and the arch; if I feel that the arch is not working, I can still fix it.”

Julia Bullock in Upload. © Marco Borggreve

Alongside film operas, van der Aa has also been working with more traditional mediums over the years. For example, his catalogue includes a compelling series of concertante pieces, written for virtuoso instrumentalists such as violinists Janine Jansen and Patricia Kopatchinskaja, cellist Sol Gabetta and clarinettist Kari Kriikku.  

”The reason I did the Violin Concerto was Janine Jansen, whom I admire greatly. So it was really an excuse to write for her. I mean, if she had played a recorder, I would have composed a recorder concerto. It was her as a performer that inspired me to do the piece. While composing the score, I had to take into account who she is as a performer. She’s not a new music specialist, so I did not want to write something that had a lot to do with extended techniques and electronics; something she would feel uncomfortable in. I really wanted to take what she’s good at and try to push her further into that direction. 

So it ended up to be a very virtuosic concerto, with one foot based firmly in the tradition, but trying to get away from it with the other. So it is definitely one of my more traditional pieces, but it was great fun to do. And I had an amazing collaboration with her on it.”

Van der Aa’s most recent concerto, Akin (2018-19) received its premiere in Cologne in May 2019. The twenty-five-minute score features two solo instruments, a violin and a cello. 

”Again I got to work with two amazing performers, Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Sol Gabetta, who inspired me greatly. They are good friends, with perfect onstage chemistry that really I tried to use as well. So it was another great opportunity. It was jointly commissioned by the Kölner Philharmonie and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, a part of my residency there. These works constitute a nice chapter in my vocabulary. 

What I really enjoy, is the diversity of my work; that I can write an opera like Upload and then go back to something much more smaller, like a string quartet and a voice. The fact that I can alter my mediums is what keeps me fresh. I couldn’t just do an opera after an opera, I have to balance it. It keeps me inspired in that way. 

Whenever I have an idea, I think, how am I going to get this idea to an audience; what do I need for that. Sometimes it can be very simple, like a sting quartet, sometimes it needs a lot lot of technology, thirteen cameras and motion capture et cetera.”

With all the experience from writing music for different mediums, van der Aa is not one to focus on the boundaries between the genres. 

”For me it is very blurred, of course. The distinctions between genres do not really interest me that much any more. But I know that for some people they do still exist; we still have classical music editors and pop music editors and theatre editors. It think, in the media and definitely for some part of the audience, it is still very compartmentalised. For a lot of the young makers, it is much more blurred. I think my generation, and definitely the younger generations, we all grew with pop music and electronic music as well. I love theatre and the visual arts and dance, so I guess it all finds its way back into my work as well. 

But even within an opera, I can write a section that is really abstract and electronic and then I can write an aria which is almost pop, depending on what does it need. I feel like I do not even think about it any more; I feel quite free to find vocabulary that suits in that moment in a piece.”

Miche van der Aa photographed by © Sarah Wijzenbeek

For those of us, who may wonder, if mounting experience makes things easier for a composer, van der Aa has a clear-cut answer.

”Hell no! [laughs] I wish! It does not change at all, at least not for me. It is still the same struggle now and then, as it was, when I started. Maybe it needs to be like that, I don’t know. I think that’s because I always choose to write things I haven’t done before, in terms of instrumentation or technology or subject matter. I choose subjects that are new to me and that I feel I need a lot of research and dive into, which always comes with the risk of getting lost and taking the wrong turns, and wondering why the hell are you doing this. So these moments are definitely still there, in plenty!”

As with the rest of us, the long months of the Covid era have turned many things upside down for van der Aa as well.

”I was super fortunate that we could make opera with each other. It made us feel almost normal again. Like every other composer, most of my concerts were cancelled. My whole agenda was wiped for almost two years. It is still very hard to find new performances next season, because all the singers are booked and all the performers are booked and everybody has a backlog; it will take years for us to get back to normal, at least two seasons, I think, until the commissioning is back on its rails, and all the backlog is been premiered. 

Given that Upload it is such big production, with four major commissioners, my biggest concern was to find rescheduled dates for all four productions. But as the Bregenz premiere is happening, and we have now set new dates for Amsterdam and New York, we only need to establish new dates for Cologne.”   

Stage and film interaction from Upload. © Marco Borggreve

As we are gradually working our way out of the lowdowns, there are perhaps lessons to be learned from the pandemic-era solutions. 

”One of the few advantages from this period is that all the presenters and orchestras and ensembles needed to think about their online presence and come up with a better plan for it. So I hope that’s we’ve learned form this and everybody will have some idea about their online presence as well, including works especially designed for online presentation, instead of just filming and streaming concert performances.       

In the beginning, it was lovely to be in someone’s living room and hear Bach being played or a choir singing, but when the newness of it disappears, we need the ritual of being in the same space with each other to witness art as well. Art that has been conceived for the concert hall is very difficult to translate through a computer screen, I think.”

Even though there has been a series of Covid cancellations, resulting in a mounting backlog of premiere performances, the creative process does not come to halt. Instead, there are several new works brewing at van der Aa’s studio. 

”We are working an a new piece for string quartet and actor and film. We like to call it chamber theatre. It is about an hour-long piece. I can’t spill the beans too much, but it will be premiered in the beginning of the 2022-2023 season, in September, and it will travel a bit abroad. 

With my doubleA foundation, we have a multi-year stipend now, so there are a few more works in development, including a new VR installation piece and a new orchestral piece, with film.”

© Jari Kallio


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: