Michel van der Aa: Blank Out

Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley CA

Written by:
David e. Moreno
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            Blank Out is a techno dreamscape, a chamber opera, and a clever trauma release therapy thriller, complete with 3D glasses for its audience. It’s an impactful, immersive performance of vivid imagery, discordant electronic sound, and solid performances created by Dutch artist Michel van der Aa. A frontrunner in multidisciplinary contemporary music, Michel van der Aa conceived, composed, staged, filmed, and directed Blank Out, which had its world premiere in 2016 and its West Coast premiere this weekend at Zellerbach Hall. 

            The libretto is based upon the work and life of South African poet Ingrid Jonker who reached iconic status in her country due to the intensity of her work and the tragic course of her turbulent life; she died by deliberately walking into the sea to drown—a similar theme in Blank Out. Jonker’s art and life are often compared to that of Sylvia Plath.

            The libretto begins with fragments of phrases and disjointed sentences delivered by Swedish soprano Miah Persson—the sole performer onstage throughout the performance. But, through the trickery of live action overlayed onto full-stage video—the program starts with three of her as they sing layered, recorded, overlapping parts, with the live Persson stepping around and between her other two cinematic doppelgangers. Persson casually navigates between singing, acting, and interacting with a miniature set—the size of an architect’s maquette—that is being filmed and projected in real-time to create the 3D backdrop on stage. The audience wearing 3D glasses for special effects are pleasantly assaulted with leaves and river stones floating towards them and beyond into the theater. Later, she interacts with a man in a similar style, recorded British baritone Roderick Williams—whom we learn is her son.

            The son is seen running around a home, perhaps his home, a desolate structure on an unknown field, where he disappears around each corner, turning into a man a few frames later. The setting of the house is spatial, sitting isolated in the countryside. That image repeats itself from varying perspectives, often at odds with the atonal music that seems more suited to the claustrophobic interior of the forsaken house. The boy, now the man Williams, pokes his head in the windows, entering both the house in the film and, at varying times, appearing inside the miniature model being projected. His scale and size shift with each composite image, occasionally with his face full frame. At this point, he takes over the story singing his lament, haunted by his past. The electronic score intensifies and, at times, is augmented by Nederland’s Chamber Choir. The most extraordinary of these images occur when he is seen hiding behind the house; they are now the same size, with the structure cut in half. He huddles behind the split home like a frightened child, both shielding one another from a violent memory.

            Yet as much as Blank Out is a feat technically, “using the intersecting and reflecting planes of live action and video to explore the human condition,” it is ultimately about the libretto which is first sung by the mother about her drowned son before the same text is used by the son painfully reminiscing his drowned mother; it’s a two-sided mirror and double edge sword spanning different realms of consciousness and existence. But as much as Blank Out has all the enthralling elements of good art, new music, and cutting-edge theater with solid deliveries by both Persson and Williams, it somehow lacks one essential ingredient. The capacity to connect this multilayered drama with emotion, with the glue of feeling that would bond this Shakespearean-like tragedy of fatal misperception and wrong turns. Did the mother die trying to rescue her son, not seeing that he had survived, leaving him to forever grieve her death? 

            Blank Out is clever—sweeping viewers away with its undertow of technical intricacies and spectacle. Yet even with its smart poetic intentions, production values ultimately outweigh human values— true feelings and authentic emotion that move beyond the stylized mimicry of traditional opera and into the raw emotional potentiality of avant-garde theater. Had it been able to pull out this gut-wrenching human condition underlying its words and myth, Blank Out would be a work long remembered as a sneaker wave of this season. 

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