April 12, 2013 / 11:45 AM / 4 years ago

Composer hopes 3D occult thriller highlights the future of opera

LONDON (Reuters) - The composer of an opera described as a multimedia, occult thriller is hoping the world premiere of "Sunken Garden" in London on Friday will show that opera is a developing art form that is not stuck in the past.

The film-opera "Sunken Garden", a collaboration between the English National Opera and London's Barbican Center, is one of the first operas to make use of 3D film while also mixing live voices and musical instruments on stage with recorded sounds.

The opera, written by award-winning Dutch composer Michel van der Aa and British author David Mitchell, best known for the novel "Cloud Atlas", follows people mysteriously disappearing and finding themselves in a limbo world between life and death.

A young filmmaker, Toby, making a documentary about a missing person and he gets pulled deeper into the mystery.

Van der Aa, 43, one of Europe's most distinctive younger composers known for his contemporary classical music, said the opera challenges the definitions of the art and could rankle some traditionalists as they are handed 3D glasses.

"But I do think it will appeal to some people who like Wagner and Verdi although they have to expect something different," Van der Aa told Reuters in an interview.

"People might question if this is still opera but that doesn't matter to me. Opera is what us makers think it is and not just what we look to in the past. Opera is an art form that should develop."

Van der Aa, who won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award for his cello concerto "Up-Close", described the opera as his most colorful score to date, combining abstract music with pop influences and both 2D and 3D film.

But the composer, who has attracted attention for his imaginative music theatre works, said the use of 3D film in the opera should not be over-rated or seen as a publicity stunt.

"I would never set out to do a 3D opera if it wasn't rooted in the DNA of the piece because otherwise it would be just effects and eye candy," he said. "The story telling is the most important thing."

Van der Aa, who trained as a music recording engineer at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague before studying composition and film, said he had spent three years working on "Sunken Garden" with Mitchell who wrote the opera's libretto.

The collaboration started after the two met in a coffee shop in Amsterdam with Van der Aa a huge admirer of Mitchell's work.

"We're trying to do something that hasn't been done before and I think we've managed to do it in a tasteful way," he said.

"I am an arts omnivore. I like a lot of more extreme currents in music. I think it is okay to combine all these influences in an opera house and this is an opera very much rooted in this day and age and this time."

The English National Opera (ENO), one of two principal opera companies in London, alongside the Royal Opera, has a history of presenting new works and even commissioning them.

ENO's latest figures show that 30 percent of its audience is aged under 44, up from 21 percent five years ago.

"Sunken Garden" is running for seven nights at the Barbican in April and will be performed in the Netherlands, Canada and France over the next year.

Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith

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