Dthe mushy sky trickles as I hurry from the train station to an abandoned gasometer in an industrial estate on the wrong side of Rotterdam. Inside, however, the sun never stops shining. I climb steps to a circular promenade and look down. Beneath them, more than 20 vacationers are sunbathing under a cloudless sky. The beach may be fake, the sunlight artificial, and the color-coding incessantly pastel, but at least the seagulls won’t dive-bomb to steal anyone’s picnic.
Welcome to Sun & Sea, the operatic performance conceived by three women, which has toured Europe and America since winning Lithuania the Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Biennale. It’s coming to London later this month to rave reviews. The New York Times wrote: “In a single hour of dangerously gentle melodies, [the work] manages to animate a panorama of characters whose stories coalesce into a portrait of an apocalyptic climate crisis.”
A couple is playing badminton, two young women are making sand sculptures and I’m mesmerized by another lost in their holiday read, The Ethical Slut, and a man I can see will never get this sudoku puzzle to work. This might resemble the summer vacation you’ll be having in a few weeks; or it could be your idea of the Circle of Hell that Dante dared not imagine.
Sun & Sea is billed as an opera, but the music is recorded, there’s no conductor, and the singers mostly sing into discreet headphone mics while lying on beach towels. The melodies float gently through the interior of the gasometer. This is how the world will end, not with a bang, but with searing, humming siren chants that desensitize us to our fate.
After the performance in Rotterdam I tell the three women behind Sun & Sea that I was dreading the show. I can’t think of any darker words than “climate change opera”. “Oh no!” says the librettist Vaiva Grainytė. “That would be horrible. We never wanted to write a climate opera. Not even to judge people who are on vacation. But we wanted to reflect on the paradoxes of our lives.
“We have made it a rule to avoid certain words like ‘plastic’ in the libretto because we didn’t want to come off as overtly didactic. No one likes to be preached.” Instead, she and her staff approach their difficult subject with a light touch. The libretto goes so far as to allow vacationers some perverted pleasure in garbage-stuffed oceans. In Chanson of Admiration, for example, a woman finds submarine beauty in the midst of rubbish: “Emerald-colored bags, bottles and red crown caps – the sea has never had so much color!” The creators are not entirely ironic, but only focus perversely on the positive side of the environmental apocalypse.
Director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė says that the main idea of Sun & Sea was for the audience to look down on the action. The trio were impressed by a performance of a work at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, where audiences lined the ramps and surveyed the scene below. “We wanted to create a dehumanized point of view, looking at ourselves as if we were a different species,” says Grainytė. “The audience strolls along the portals to get different perspectives on what’s happening,” adds Barzdžiukaitė.
But I was queasy at the thought of looking down on the cast as if they were sun-seekers in a simulacrum of Torremolinos or Faliraki. I certainly don’t want to feel like a smug opera-goer gazing down at his proverbial lorgnette at the seething Eurotrash below. “We don’t look down on people in that sense,” counters Lapelytė. “We’re all involved. Who are we to look down on people having 10 days of vacation in the sun from jobs they hate?”
This generous vision led Sun & Sea to overcome my fears. I found myself able to empathize with the most unlikable of characters, a wealthy workaholic businessman. “I really don’t feel like I can be slowed down,” he sings. “Because my colleagues will look down on me. They will say I have no willpower. And I become a loser in my own eyes.”
And then the sing-along refrain: “Exhaustion, exhaustion, exhaustion, exhaustion…” So his vacation is a welcome temporary death, a sabbath from the 24/7 working day.
His wife, on the nearest sun lounger, undersells this, singing as if vacations themselves are tedious, and traveling a checklist of meaningless experiences. She sings about how her little boy is eight and a half and has already swum the Red, White, Black, Aegean and Mediterranean and has already visited two seas. “And we’ll be visiting the rest of them this year!” she sings with ridiculous hubris.
Sun & Sea was inspired by many things, but most poignantly by a revelation Grainytė had during a walk in the Lithuanian forests. “I found a chanterelle in December. It shouldn’t have been possible.” In the opera, this walk turns into the song of a woman who, after moaning about the dog shit in the sand and the vulgar people around her, remembers how Grainytė picks chanterelles on a walk had found. “End of December, why?” She sings and adds: “As grandma used to say: the end of the world!”
Horrible things have happened in beach operas – Aschenbach dies uncomplained on his Lido deck chair; a small-town mob chasing suspected child killer Peter Grimes – but nothing quite as off-the-wall harrowing as this one. Mortality and apocalypse haunt the holiday scene. A woman mourns the loss of her ex who drowned after swimming too far out on vacation. Another sings of a chance romance that blossomed at an airport when flights were grounded by volcanic ash.
A third cries as she learns corals are dying, fish are dying, and bees are falling dead from the sky. But in the next verse, Grainytė’s surreal imagination soars, and the woman imagines how 3D printing could replace everything we’ve destroyed. “3D corals never fade! 3D animals never lose their horns! 3D food has no price!” It’s an endearingly insane vision who becomes stunned by imagining that she, too, could survive her own death. “3D me lives forever!” She sings.
What’s all this about? “The dream that we hold on to this technology can save us,” says Grainytė.
Is there anything typically Lithuanian about Sun & Sea? “Melancholy,” says Lapelytė. The others agree. Little did they know when the show premiered in a disused parking garage in Vilnius that this expression of Lithuanian sadness would become such a successful export and a source of patriotic pride. “We expected it to be released only in Lithuania, like our previous collaboration.” It was an operatic indictment of consumption from the perspective of supermarket cashiers entitled Have a Good Day!
Sun & Sea includes random elements like kids and dogs and water (an off-stage supply allows the artists to return to the beach wet as if they’ve just taken a dip), all of which sound like accidents waiting to happen will. In Switzerland, a Yorkshire terrier caused particular chaos. The singers aren’t all happy either – “they’re afraid that the children and dogs will throw sand into their lungs,” says Lapelytė. “They don’t like to sing lying down either, but they have to.”
The show mutates as it travels the world with a mostly rotating cast of singers and extras. At the suggestion of a singer in Rome, one of the couples became gay. “We are not interested in producing an object that will stand the test of time,” says Lapelytė. “We see ourselves as collaborators with the performers. Maybe women work differently than men in that sense.”
Even the sand can look and feel different from place to place. For example, for next week’s performance in Reykjavik, the beach will be made of locally sourced volcanic ash. In Dresden, one of the German extras spent the performance building small walls of sand to keep other beachgoers in their zones. What will the extras do in London, the women ask me. Probably not cleaning up the mess of their attack dogs, I suggest.
Something strange happens at the end of the performance in Rotterdam. The audience is gently encouraged to leave while the sunbathing singers remain on stage. What happened to applause and applause? This is not opera as we know it. Taking us back to reality from Gasometer Beach, an official explains: “You don’t applaud the end of the world.”