There’s a moment in Blank Out, Dutch composer Michel van der Aa’s high-concept chamber opera now running through Sept. 27 at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, when the two unnamed characters — a woman and a man, a mother and her grown son — stop what they’re doing and perform a playful dance routine in unison to electronic dance music. The coordinated dance is especially impressive since just one of them is on stage, or even present at the performance; the other appears only in pre-recorded 3D video. The intimate connection the two characters share as they dance is only possible across the video. In the loose, atmospheric narrative of the opera, one of them has drowned decades earlier and is a poignant memory; it is at first unclear who is real and who is phantasm.
A brilliant example of the best kind of artistic adventurousness.
Blank Out opens with a woman alone on stage in a red dress, the Swedish soprano Miah Persson, mesmerizing in a demanding role. She sings disjointed fragments of text until she is doubled and then tripled by projected video of herself (all of the video in Blank Out is 3D), resulting in a powerfully effective trio of her three selves, eventually recounting the horror of being paralyzed by shock as she watched her seven-year-old son drown at the beach. She remembers her life with him as she sets up a dollhouse version of their house from his childhood, and a camera, controlled by Persson, streams video of the tiny, hyperreal interior to the large screen filling the back of the stage.
The video then shifts to scenes of a grown man inside the real house that inspired the dollhouse version; everything is gorgeous, stark, utterly isolated. The man in the video is portrayed by British baritone Roderick Williams, who projects an affecting presence, despite not being present, with the yearning in his music and the delicacy of his acting. He muses about his childhood in the house and the games he used to play with his mother, who tragically drowned rescuing him from the ocean when he was young. His text begins to echo some of the imagery described by the woman at the beginning and the audience understands that his version is real one; the boy had indeed been rescued and it was his mother who drowned. (Van der Aa wrote the libretto inspired by the life and writing of South African poet Ingrid Jonker, who committed suicide by walking into the ocean near Cape Town in 1965. She is the source of some passages of the opera’s text and a connection to the drowning plot, but that is as close as Blank Out comes to her biography — the opera does not tell her story.)
There is fraught emotion, to be sure, but the opera is more cerebral than melodramatic, which is remarkable for story about childhood loss and death. This is no criticism; the bones of the narrative could easily slip into soap-opera sentimentality, if not a ghost story, but van der Aa avoids that deftly. What ultimately stands out is the ingenious, resonant narrative complexity. The opera explores some fundamental questions about possibly gendered, possibly generational reactions to profound loss. It plays on the uncertainty between real and imaginary, nostalgia and memory, the past and present, even banality and calamity, as both characters make much of an unremarkable day at the beach turning instantaneously into acute, enduring tragedy.
Perhaps the most important theme that illuminates Blank Out is the blurriness between what is mediated — by, for example, 3D video projection, minutely detailed dollhouse models of family homes, the passage of time, the veil of nostalgia, unconscious expressions of emotion — and what is felt immediately. One of most arresting visual tableaux in the opera illustrates this: A bathtub full of rocks flies into the air and freezes, suspended, an extravagantly pleasurable use of 3D visuals. This is a more-or-less non-narrative, highly abstracted set piece, a literally fake filmic special effect, pure mediation. Paradoxically, this passage heightens the human emotion between the characters. The least “realistic,” flashiest moment of spectacle that van der Aa stages emerges as one of the most symbolically communicative emotional beats in the opera.
I’ve written before about the need for judicious decision making in operatic experimentation — it’s exciting to see directors take risks or even deconstruct the art form, but those risks are not always necessarily successful or well-advised. Blank Out, with its stripped-down staging, eclectic recorded music and integral embrace of 3D video sets a brilliant example of the best kind of artistic adventurousness. I look forward to seeing what van der Aa will create for us next.