After Life Recollections
My thoughts after attending After Life (by Michel van der Aa) at the Melbourne Festival 2012
Being barely an hour since the flickers and hiss of the projector and rhythmic cycle of sprocket noise subsides, this opera is already lodging itself as a defining moment in my own life. I still feel its salty sting, and am animated to further probe the matters I have already been so vigorously attending to in my many words and thoughts since my life’s memories began.
The various characters were presented at the end with clunkily filmed “recollections we created for you”. Here are mine: my sadness at being alone at tonight’s performance refocused toward making my descriptions as accurate and detailed as possible. I am writing speedily now to be sure that nothing slips into the aether. These wonderful things of particular concern to us; understanding our future, past, and particularly present. These are more than mere instances of life; they form an exploration of responsibility, of growth, and of belonging.
What I write is based on my immediate recollections, and without the help of a script, programme note, or web resource. Should any reader identify a detail that they believe to be incorrect or inaccurate, they should reserve their disdain and contemplate that my motivation to write stems from an extraordinary wish to honour this work and its composer and that I am grateful for the profound insights that it has provided me.
The opera is peopled by a combination of the singers/actors on stage, filmed footage of these same people at the very beginning of the rehearsal phase (6 years ago) when they were only given fragments of information about their roles and what they had to sing and why, and filmed interviews with “real” people (the “docu-dead”). Also an orchestra of strings, clarinets, oboe, trumpet, tuba, organ and harpsichord. These combinations and pairings of high/low and bright/mellow were accentuated by subtly filtered pre-recorded echoes; the feathery reverb tails of the electronic.
Three attendants at a "halfway house" divide up the clipboards listing the most recent arrivals. The three we first meet (“Good morning. You died yesterday, sorry for your loss”) are instructed that they have until next Wednesday at dusk to decide on the most precious, beautiful, or defining moment of their lives. They are left to comb through old bric a brac - sofas, lampshades, fishing rods, paintings, a kite - to help them narrow it down to one incident, or they will not progress. The despondent 21 year old, Ilana: I have nothing except a dream I once had about the future. She dashes in panic back and forth across the stage carrying a painting of a stormy beach, in front of footage of her running along the beach carrying same painting. She trips and falls, unsure, does this recollection really count? No, I can’t accept that this is the way for gaining responsibility for my life. She turns up later on stage in an attendant’s uniform, for the penalty for failing to decide is to work evermore at the facility. Mr Walter is 71. Nothing stands out, says he. If only there were some photos or diaries. Have you no children? No. Hobbies? Nothing stands out. The attendants offer to assist him by ordering his 71 archival videos. But be warned, they say, these will not correspond exactly with your memories, and should only be used as a reference. We suggest fast forwarding through most of them.
The many intricate elements of After Life are expertly held together, like the extraordinary sculpted palettes of household goods and furniture that are moved around the stage and in the background shots (the original production included a long conveyor belt keeping these artifacts circulating on an endless loop). Michel van der Aa is composer, director, and film maker all at once. He explained in a workshop (held on Saturday 13th October 2012) that he worked as a sound engineer, but in a decision to “make something of his life”, went on to study composition, then film making. The filmed sections are so well integrated, that they shift from foreground to background as musically as the harmonic and orchestrational material does - with alternately darkened screen and silent orchestra creating an eerily similar chill. The brilliant balancing of all these media by van der Aa reminds me of other megalomaniac puppeteers of the Gesamtkunstwerk - W S Gilbert or Richard Wagner.
A Jewish girl leaves Amsterdam with her family shortly before the war. They take a long train journey to the port of Genoa thence by boat to New York. “The plumes on Mussolini’s foot soldiers I saw as feathers”. She returns to Holland years later as a grown woman, and cries inconsolably at recognising the waters, the greens, the slopes, and the smells as hers. Another had a happy childhood. Her father introduced her to music for the first time, holding her hand on the sofa listening to the wireless at age 8. One man recalls toiling for years as a boy with his inventor grandfather. They created a perpetual motion machine, but it only ran for 47 hours. Just before the grandfather died he said to the boy, go and get that thing working again... The (by now) young man went into the basement workshop and removed each lightbulb from its fitting one by one. The attendants say: we could represent this by sound alone.
The piece itself was held together by the perpetual motion of a click track that the conductor has in an earpiece. We weren’t really aware of this, but this had to be done because very often singers were synchronised with the recorded footage of themselves singing same or similar parts. Projection upon projection. The two main male characters, Mr Walter and Aiden the attendant, find that their lives are inextricably intertwined. Mr Walter’s wife was once engaged to the other man fifty odd years ago. Aiden decides to make his decision now after all these years and identifies his defining moment ending with shining the camera back to his work colleagues at the facility. “I only know this now, after seeing all that I’ve seen and all I’ve farewelled....”
I know my defining event already. But I tend to agree with Ilana, that this is no way to take responsibility for one’s life. Maybe it has to be done during the turbulence, right as it is happening and not with regret and sadness years down the track. Maybe we need people around us to nudge us to do what our hearts and minds and bodies and dreams are already whispering. Self pity and guilt regardless of what else has happened are signs enough that things must change. We must always claim and reclaim self worth, and must guard against having our precious energies consumed with the destructivity of defending cruel cornerings. It is never our fault, but our art and creativity need to be done properly and taken seriously; not through jobs at “hobby” rates nor accepting demeaning auxiliary roles.
Rumanian/German author Herta Müller explains that a city is dangerous. Its construction of flat and hard surfaces, of asphalt and concrete, have a direct effect on our language. The harder the feet strike the ground, the more loose and flappy the tongues become. (This is adapted from Müller’s essay “Wenn wir schweigen, werden wir unangenehm - wenn wir reden, werden wir lächerlich” in Der König verneigt sich und tötet, 2003). Being from the country, I know in my soul (and soles) that the real foundation and undulations are dirt, stubbled grass, rough bark, algae in a watertank, and redgum smoke. This is where we have the chance to regain our peace. Plants show us what is wrong with ourselves; they do this by their smell, their colour, and particularly their form (also from Müller). Initially the problems are magnified to monstrous proportions, but then the perspectives alter and they shrink and disappear to nothing. After tonight I feel the urge to create huge works with the dimensions and insights of such an opera. Does this require elaborate plotting, or instead continuing the small steps of a journey already begun?