“You can blink, but no longer open a window.” A daughter faces her father and yet they cannot touch each other: he is a projection. Her father has had himself ‘uploaded’, his consciousness is on a server network and what she sees is an avatar. ‘Mind-uploading’ is a thing of the future, but in Upload, Michel van der Aa’s latest opera (music, libretto and direction), the concept is the reason for an exploration of essential questions: what does it mean to be human, to have a body, to love someone?
Upload was shown for the first time in the Netherlands on Friday at the Dutch National Opera; the world premiere was postponed last spring due to corona and finally took place in July during the Bregenzer Festspiele. A film version was already shown in Amsterdam this summer, but it is precisely the layered interaction between live and film – the intimate father-daughter story on stage, and a pseudo-documentary about the uploading process in super HD – that makes Upload highly original, essayistic musical theatre.
A new opera by Michel van der Aa usually also means a new form. Previously he used 3D technique (Sunken Garden, 2013) and VR (Eight, 2019). In his very first opera (One, 2003), soprano Barbara Hannigan conducted a dialogue with her own film image. Sophistication and technique reach new heights in Upload, because form and content coincide perfectly. Moreover, Van der Aa has delivered fantastic music. Lyrical vocal lines, gritty electro, tinkling percussion, grooving or fanning out in cosmic soundscapes; in a chameleonic collage, superbly performed by Ensemble Musikfabrik, he always strikes the right atmosphere.
Also read the interview with Michel van der Aa about Upload
Daughter (Julia Bullock) is angry because Vader (Roderick Williams) didn’t involve her in his decision. On the contrary, he wanted to spare her: since her mother’s death he has been prey to depression, he also hoped to leave his trauma behind with his body. The father-daughter relationship sometimes rubs against the pathetic, but Bullock and Williams are great. With a surplus of visual and musical brilliance, the story takes you to an open ending, where the father puts his fate in the hands of his daughter.
“You can live forever – you just have to die first.” The fresh, slightly ironic clinic director (Ashley Zukerman, with a touch of Hugh Grant) gives the docu a completely different tone than the stage act. The variety is stimulating. Talking heads (including Katja Herbers as a psychologist) talk about the upload process, paying attention to smart details, such as a ‘memory anchor’ to alleviate the trauma of the loss of touch. As a memory anchor, the father chooses an idyllic childhood scene, in which he felt perfectly happy. Unfortunately something goes wrong with his upload. The anchor disintegrates and his trauma is still there, whereupon he begs his daughter to ‘delete’ him.
The beautiful decor by Theun Mosk is extremely effective in its simplicity; with a few screens and a sophisticated lighting plan, it creates spaces and gradually incorporates the razor-sharp film world. The revelation that baritone Williams is on the edge of the stage singing in front of a motion-capture camera is just the first in a series of visual treats. We don’t know how it will end, but the final sequence, in which a huge film screen falls over the hall and father and daughter seem to come together in their ultimate moment just above our heads, is of great beauty.