by Steven Pisano
The beach season may be winding down along the area's shorelines, but at the Brooklyn Academy of Music it is just starting. After 18 months of its theaters being darkened by the pandemic, BAM opened its 2021-2022 season last week with "Sun & Sea," which has the unique distinction of being the first opera set entirely on a beach. (Unless you count Einstein on the Beach.)
To create that beach, workers unloaded 25 tons of sand into the Fishman Space. (After the show's run, the sand will be cleaned and reused.) This is where the performers sprawl out on their blankets and beach chairs, surrounded by food containers and toys and lots of beach stuff, singing softly and sometimes blandly to a gently melodic electronic score. At first, it almost seems innocuous, but a closer listen reveals a more ominous message.
In 2019, "Sun & Sea" won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale--the festival's top prize. (See here for a video from that production.) The work was created by three young Lithuanian artists--director Rugile Barzdziukaite, librettist Vaiva Grainyte, and composer Lina Lapelyte.
In addition to many of its cast members that have been with the production for several years as it was developed, they also added local beachgoers who answered an open call for people to be part of the show. You too could have found a blanket on the sand and been a part of it!
Among the characters who sing (in English) are a rich businessman with his wife and son who lounge on beach chairs (most lie on towels or blankets); a gay couple who read to each other and caress each other; twin teenage girls who strike a chord simply because of their twinness; a senior couple who are a bit rounder than the other beachgoers; and several lone sunbathers, male and female, who stand out in some way because they are alone.
The score, which lasts about an hour, gurgles along like sea foam along the shore, waves washing over the ears. It is very pleasant to listen to, even if none of the arias exhibit the force of more traditional operas. The real power is in the lyrics, singing about how the human race is blindly enjoying their day at the beach while climate change, sea and air pollution, and consumerism are slowly, insistently snuffing out life on the planet.
Perhaps most unusual for the audience is that the show is viewed from above on a balcony which surrounds the beach. Unless someone needs a chair, everyone stands and is encouraged to walk around in order to view the beach from different angles. You can even take pictures with your cell phone. The staging is intended to have the audience view these people from above, as if from a bird's-eye view (think of Julie Gold's song "From a Distance"). But as the audience shuffles around, as much concerned with itself as with the beachgoers below, it becomes evident that there isn't very much separating us.
Are we listening?
Performances, which take place continuously over five hours, continue through Sunday, September 26. (You can stay as long as you like from the time on your ticket.) All remaining performances are sold out, but there should be standby tickets available at the box office.
More photos can be found here.