Drizzle falls from the mush-colored sky as I hurry from the station to an abandoned gasholder in an industrial estate on the wrong side of Rotterdam. Inside, however, the sun never stops shining. I walk up the steps of a circular walkway and look down. Below, more than 20 vacationers sunbathe under a clear sky. The beach may be fake, the sunlight artificial, and the color coding incessantly pastel, but at least the seagulls won’t be swooping in to steal anyone’s picnic.
Welcome to Sun & Sea, the opera-show devised by three women who, since winning Lithuania the Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, has toured Europe and America. It arrives in London later this month, to rave reviews. The New York Times wrote: “Within a single hour of dangerously smooth tunes, [the work] manages to animate a panoramic cast of characters whose stories coalesce into a portrait of an apocalyptic climate crisis.”
A couple plays badminton, two young women make sand sculptures, and I find myself fascinated by another lost in her Christmas reading, The Ethical Slut, and a man I can see will never crack that sudoku puzzle. This could look like the summer vacation you have in a few weeks; or it could be your idea of the circle of hell that Dante didn’t dare to imagine.
Sun & Sea bills itself as an opera, but the music is recorded, there’s no director, and the singers mostly sing into discreet headset microphones while reclining on beach towels. The melodies are soft and float inside the gasometer. This is how the world will end, not with a roar but with languid and humming siren songs that numb us to our destiny.
After the Rotterdam performance, I tell the three women behind Sun & Sea that I had been dreading the show. I can think of no sadder words than “climate change opera”. “Oh no!” says librettist Vaiva Grainytė. “That would be terrible. We never wanted to write an opera about climate change. Nor to judge people who are on vacation. But we did want to think about the paradoxes of how we live.
“We made a rule to avoid certain words like ‘plastic’ in the script, because we didn’t want to be overtly didactic. Nobody likes to be lectured.” Instead, she and her collaborators approach her heavy topic with a light touch. The script goes so far as to allow vacationers to take wicked pleasure in oceans littered with garbage. In Chanson of Admiration, for example, a woman finds underwater beauty amid the rubbish: “emerald red bags, bottles and bottle caps – the sea has never been so coloured!” The creators aren’t being ironic, but perversely focusing on the positive side of the environmental apocalypse.
Director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė says that the fundamental idea of Sun & Sea was that the audience despise the action. The trio were blown away by a performance of a play at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, where audiences lined the ramps and watched the scene below. “We wanted to create a dehumanized angle, to look at ourselves as if we were another species,” says Grainytė. “Audiences wander through the porticoes to get different perspectives of the action,” adds Barzdžiukaitė.
We wanted to create a dehumanized angle, to look at ourselves as if we were another species.
But the idea of dismissing artists as if they were sun seekers in a simulacrum of Torremolinos or Faliraki bothered me. The last thing I want to feel like is some smug opera buff looking down his proverbial lorgnette at the roasting Eurotrash below. “We are not looking down on people in that sense,” Lapelytė replies. “We are all involved. Who are we to look down on people who have 10 days of vacation in the sun from jobs they hate?
That generous vision is what got Sun & Sea through my fears. I found myself empathizing with even the most unpleasant of characters, a wealthy workaholic businessman. “I really don’t feel like I can afford to slow down,” he sings. “Because my colleagues will look down on me. They will say I have no willpower. And I will become a loser in my own eyes.
And then the singing choir: “Exhaustion, exhaustion, exhaustion, exhaustion…” Their party, then, is a welcome temporary death, a Saturday of 24/7 work.
His wife, in the lounger next to him, undermines this, singing as if the vacation itself is laborious and traveling like a checklist of meaningless experiences. She sings about how her youngest son is eight and a half years old and has already swum in the Red, White, Black, Aegean and Mediterranean Seas and has already visited two of the world’s oceans. “And we will visit the rest this year!” she sings with ridiculous arrogance.
Sun & Sea was inspired by many things, but most poignant of all was an epiphany 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 is transmuted into the song of a woman who, after complaining about dog shit in the arena and the common people around her, recalls finding chanterelles on a walk just as Grainytė had. “At the end of December, how is that?” she sings, adding: “As Grandma used to say: The end of the world!”
Terrible things have happened before in operas set on the beach: Aschenbach expiring without complaint on his Lido deckchair; a small-town mob hunting suspected child killer Peter Grimes, but nothing quite as obliquely heartbreaking as this. Mortality and the apocalypse haunt the Christmas scene. A woman mourns her ex, who drowned when she swam too far on vacation. Another sings of a casual romance that blossomed at an airport when flights were grounded by volcanic ash.
A third sings in tears when she learned that the coral is dying, the fish are dying and the bees are falling dead from the sky. But in the next verse, Grainytė’s surreal imagination takes flight 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 is priceless!” It’s an insanely winning vision that drives her crazy when she imagines that she might as well survive her own death. “3D Lives Me Forever!” She sings.
What is all that about? “The dream of holding on to that technology can save us,” says Grainytė.
Who are we to look down on people who have 10 days of vacation in the sun from jobs they hate?
Is there something distinctively Lithuanian about Sun & Sea? “Melancholia”, says Lapelytė. The others agree. When the show premiered in a disused multi-storey car park in Vilnius, they never suspected that this expression of Lithuanian sadness would become such a successful export and a source of patriotic pride. “We were hoping that it would only appear in Lithuania, like our previous collaboration.” That was an operatic indictment of consumerism seen through the perspective of supermarket cashiers, called Have a Nice Day!
Sun & Sea includes random elements such as children, dogs, and water (an offstage supply allows performers to return to the beach wet, as if they’ve just taken a dip) that sound like accidents waiting to happen. In Switzerland, a Yorkshire terrier caused particular havoc. Not all singers are happy, either: “They worry that children and dogs will kick up sand in their lungs,” says Lapelytė. “They also don’t like to sing while lying down, but they have to.”
The show mutates as it travels the world with a mostly changing cast of singers and extras. At the suggestion of a singer in Rome, one of the couples became gay. “It’s not about producing an object that endures unchanged over time,” says Lapelytė. “We see ourselves as collaborators of the artists. Maybe women work differently than men in that regard.”
Even sand can look and feel different from place to place. For next week’s performance in Reykjavik, for example, the beach will consist of locally sourced volcanic ash. In Dresden, one of the German extras spent the performance building small sand walls to keep other bathers in their zones. What will the extras do in London, the women ask me. Probably won’t clear up the mess of your attack dogs, I suggest.
At the end of the Rotterdam performance, something curious happens. The audience is gently ushered out while the sunbathing singers remain on stage. What happened to the curtain calls and applause? This is not opera as we have known it. An official, who takes us from the gasometer beach to reality, explains: “The end of the world is not applauded.”
• Sun & Sea is in Albany, London, from June 23 to July 10.