Sun & Sea, the surprise hit and award winner of the 2019 Venice Biennale, has reached New York via the BAM Fisher and it may proves to be the first environmental opera. Set on a man-made beach above which the audience watches from a balcony level on all four sides of the square playing area, this creation by composer Lina Lapelytė, librettist Vaiva Grainytė, and director and set designer Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė (an all-women Lithuanian team) covers climate change, ocean pollution, and extreme meteorological events. Their intent is serious but so is the entertainment value.
Performed by a cast of 15 singers and enacted in pantomime by numerous local volunteers all dressed in swimwear, Sun & Sea is a typical day at the beach in which we hear the thoughts of the singers, some of whom worry about the state of the world while others are entirely oblivious to it. Not only is it opera lite and a great deal of fun without being funny, it is also a very subversive way to communicate a message on as serious a subject as climate change. While the singers communicate their thoughts, the beachgoers frolic and enjoy their day oblivious to us but not to each other. The cast is a cross-section of all ages and races, including young children and two well behaved dogs – but no vendors. The totally realistic action (aside from the singing) includes reading, texting, eating, chatting, drinking, walking, cuddling, tanning, playing ball or games, while the children dig in the sand and build sandcastles. Some sit on beach chairs or chaise lounges while most lie on blankets on the sand or stand.
When the audience is led up to the balcony where they stand around the rails looking down at the beach below, the performance has already begun, and continues on a loop hourly five times a night, and more on matinee days. An older woman (Svetlana Bagdonaitė) worries to her husband about needing sunscreen so her legs won’t “peel and crack, and chap” or “you’ll be turning red as a lobster.” One half of a gay couple (tenor Marco Cisco) describes his having had to land in London due to the ashes of a volcano that affected the plane. The vacation choristers remark that red and yellow flags have gone up due to “drop-offs, rip-tides and undertows” and swimmers “are strongly advised to stay on shore.”
A wealthy and entitled woman (soprano Kalliopi Petrou) sings of visiting the Great Barrier Reef where she found it a relief that there was a restaurant and a hotel. Later when she marvels at the sight of the “bleached, pallid whiteness,” she has no idea that this means that the Reef has died. The Chanson singer (dramatic soprano Nabila Dandara Vieira Santos with an incredibly beautiful high tessitura) describes being overcome by the heat (“My Head is dizzy, Light and empty body”) and she has no water left in her bottle.
A chorus member warns ominously that the sea and sky have changed, and a character called Siren (spinto soprano Ieva Skorubskaitė) describes “Acidy waves, ivory foam.” A woman (mezzo-soprano Eglė Paškevičienė) who has complained about how people leave the beach a mess marvels about how at last Christmas “there was no frost, no snow, it felt like it could be Easter,” and in the woods “there was a refreshing green moss, Just like in springtime.” She concludes both comically and critically with “As granny liked to say: The end of the world!”
The workaholic husband of the entitled woman (resonant bass Vytautas Pastarnokas) sings of exhaustion and his negativity bubbling up like lava, which leads the vacation choristers to sing of lava (like a mammoth – a non-existent creature gone extinct). We hear more about the volcano which grounded airplanes and the young man who was affected sings of “the panic and the ashes.” Two twin sisters (Auksė and Saulė Dovydėnaitė), knowledgeable about ecology, sing a duet regretting the extinction of the Great Barrier Reef and fish that will go extinct. The older woman again looks at her new sunscreen lotion and reads the label in four languages. The opera ends ironically with the Vacation Choristers singing of the sea turning green with eutrophication and while “our swimsuits are filling up with algae.” Between the pointedly ominous arias are numbers about more mundane things, relationships, travel, food, dreams, and swimming suits ow made in China “a parody of the Silk Road.”
The electronic music is quite accessible as are the words to the arias and duets which never hit us over the head with their warnings. Although much of the action is improvised, director Barzdžiukaitė has kept tight control over the action which never overshadows the music or the arias though there is always a great deal to watch. The uncredited prop design which may be part of her set design is tremendously detailed and eye filling.
The appropriate (uncredited) costumes in pale colors have apparently been chosen by the performers themselves. The sound design (technical director Lique van Gerven; sound engineer Romauld Chalon Galiauskas) of Rimas Uzgiris’ English translation of the Lithuanian text is excellent though some of the Lithuanian accents are a bit difficult to understand. (Librettos are provided, if one cares to follow them during the production though the light on the balcony is rather low.)
Sun & Sea is ultimately a tour de force both for its presentation and its message which grows on you as the hour proceeds. If anyone were to tell you that opera is a dead relic of the past, only point them in the direction of this production which not only resuscitates it but takes it in an entirely new contemporary direction.
Sun & Sea (Brooklyn: September 15 – 26, 2021; US Tour: September 30 – October 16, 2021)
Originally produced by Neon Realism
Fishman Space at BAM Fisher, 321 Ashland Place, in Brooklyn
For tickets, visit http://www.bam.org/sun-and-sea
Running time: one hour loops every hour; on a five hour loop
Note: Audience stands on a balcony above stage but can move around to all four sides during performance which repeats as soon as it is over.