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Yvette Bonner (Sarah), Roderick Williams (Aiden) [Photo by Hans van den Bogaard courtesy of De Nederlandse Opera]
17 May 2010

Michel van der Aa : After Life at the Barbican, London

“If you could take any one memory with you to eternity, which one would you choose?” In Michel van der Aa’s After Life several people meet in a waiting room.

Michael van der Aa: After Life

Roderick Williams: Aiden; Richard Stuart: Mr Walter; Yvette Bonner: Sarah; Margriet van Reisen: Ilona; Claron McFadden: Chief; Helena Rasker: Bryna Tessa; Juul; Flint; Bert: participants. Asko/Schoenberg. Otto Tausk: conductor. Michel van de Aa: director, video script. Robby Duiveman: costumes. Barbican Theatre, London, 15th May 2010.

Above: Yvette Bonner as Sarah and Roderick Williams as Aiden

All photos by Hans van den Bogaard courtesy of De Nederlandse Opera


They’ve just died, but they must examine their lives, and pick one memory to take with them before they can journey on. One memory to summarize a whole lifetime? It’s not easy. Effectively, they’re pondering what their lives might have meant. It’s a powerful psychological concept, strikingly adapted as theatre.

At the premiere in 2006, Shirley Apthorp in the Financial Times described the opera as “The Gesammstkunstwerk of the Future”. Michel van der Aa mixes live orchestra with electronica, live performers with ordinary people captured on film. That’s not specially innovative in itself, but van der Aa takes the concept further, blending art and reality. Singers and musicians perform a score, while ordinary people speak spontaneously. Van der Aa abandoned the idea of script altogether: people simply turned up at his studio, and talked spontaneously. Ordinary people, but extraordinary lives.

Perhaps that’s part of After Life’s message too. More emotionally articulate people have more insight into what makes them what they are, but even the most mundane life has meaning.. What of those who are blocked in some way ? Mr Walter ( Richard Suart) looks back on a “so-so job, a so-so marriage”, where nothing seems to have mattered either way. Ilana (Margreit van Reisen) has had such a horrible life she doesn’t want to remember anything. But in the Afterlife, you can’t move on unless you can deal with your past.

That’s why the staff in the “waiting room” help people reconstruct their lives and memories. Sometimes it isn’t the grand gestures that create the best memories, but simple things. like hugging a loved pet, or sitting on a park bench and feeling you belong. Aiden (Roderick Williams) reveals that the staff themselves are people who are blocked and can’t proceed until they, too, learn the meaning of their lives. Aiden helps Walter, but by helping Walter, he finds his own release. In this strange Limbo, the authority figure, The Chief (Claron McFadden) may in fact be the person most trapped. Maybe the secret to passage isn’t what memory you carry with you, but how much excess baggage you’re prepared to leave behind.

Michel van der Aa’s music may be avant garde, and extended by electronic effects, but it communicates well. Van der Aa wrote one of the study pieces for After Life for the famous Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, hence the harpsichord-led purity of line. As he says, the music “has two layers, a direct, physically dramatic layer and another with more depth, that is more conceptual”. The opera deals with very unusual ideas, so this interplay between clarity and mystery is fundamental.

al.18generale.gifClaron McFadden (Chief), Margriet van Reisen (Ilana), Yvette Bonner (Sarah), Helena Rasker (Bryna Pullman), Roderick Williams (Aiden)

The vocal lines sweep up and down the scale, even within phrases, but don’t sound unnatural. McFadden, who has few equals in modern music, and has created the wildest Harpies, sounds soft and lyrical, actually quite sweet. Williams proves why he’s one of the most sought after character baritones in his generation. He’s a wonderful, expressive actor who moves as well as he sings. Yvette Bonner as Sarah, the other member of staff, has good potential.

Michel van der Aa worked with Louis Andriessen (Writing to Vermeer) who promoted the idea of anti-orchestra back in the 1960’s. The idea of multi-media, conceptual theatre is fairly well established in Europe. The Queen of the Netherlands attended After Life at the highly prestigious Holland Festival. Holland’s famous for its liberal, open-minded attitudes, but After Life is so good that it can export, even to more buttoned down. British psyche. After all, every one of us will one day make that journey, whatever may be on the other side.

Congratulations to the Barbican for bringing it to London, just months after the recent revival (with revisions) . I was impressed by the way the Barbican marketed this opera, which might have been a hard sell, given that it’s so modern. They set up a mini website, inviting readers to send in their own ideas of what memory they’d take into the unknown. After Life is about ordinary people, so it’s a good idea that “ordinary people” participate. While it emphasizes “ordinary” life, this opera poses questions about life, identity and emotional dexterity that make it a challenge. What you get from it reflects what you put in. A bit like life itself.

Anne Ozorio

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