SYDNEY — The annual Sydney Festival comes at the peak of the Australian summer holidays. So, wherever an inch of sand and water be found, holiday makers are spending their days languorously at summer’s mecca, beach–swimming, surfing, and playing games as far away from theaters as conceivable, happily distracted from the pre-occupations of life and over-arching global concerns. So how can an operatic performance, set on the seaside and permeated with eco-conscious issues and global climate emergencies, lure people to think more deeply? This is the challenge posed, accepted, and ultimately accomplished in Sun and Sea, the Lithuanian work that won the Golden Lion Award at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
Sun and Sea arrived at the Sydney Festival for a three-day season (Jan. 6-8) after making its way across Europe and the United States in festivals such as London’s LIFT and at venues like New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music. In this glittering harbor-side city, the performances are housed at the town hall. And, as with the other iterations of this durational performance, the setting is paramount. Audiences are called to look down at the performance from a gallery set high above the performance area. The viewing perspective — of humans peering down upon other human beings (an inspection of our selves) — is germane to the Sun and Sea experience.
The unique interdisciplinary background of the creative team — Lina Lapelytė is a composer-sound artist-musician and Vaiva Grainytė is poet and writer — allows the artists to push the envelope of what constitutes and what we loosely aggregate as “performance art,” the term popularized in the 1970s.
The form of this piece, directed by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, materializes as not quite opera or oratorio, not quite art installation, and not quite music theater. While the creators call the piece an operatic performance, the creative decisions deliberately and cannily defer any dramatic arc. Neither does the music or the performances draw attention. In fact, then, the piece succeeds wonderfully as an anti-opera.
These are the virtues and subtle genius of Sun and Sea — and why its presentation belongs in an art museum, where the open-ended time parameters and the appreciation of art as a protracted experience of sometimes sustained and sometimes random observation at the will of the viewer is well practiced.
Audiences of Sun and Sea are greeted with a typical beachside holiday setting. Set on a bed of sand, the scene is peopled with men, women, and children from across generations. They are costumed in gelati, pastel-colored bathing clothes, creating a calm and balmy harmony. The activities are typical. People lounge in beach chairs, read books, sunbake, or play games. A dog walks by, people chat. The scene is a beach version of a Bruegel village, but instead of being ensnared in oil paint, activities unfold organically before our eyes.
Lapelytė’s music is a series of vignette-styled forms, from choruses for the vacationers to a siren’s aria, a song of exhaustion (workaholic’s song) and the chanson of too much sun. There is a minimized bass-line, pre-recorded soundtrack of oom-pah or drone accompaniments for the cast of trained and untrained voices. For these performances, the choir was made up of members of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, River City Voices, and Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir. The solos are offered by a cast of distinctly beautiful Lithuanian singers, though the normative performance style of singers is up-ended. All of the solos are performed either lying down or reclining. Anti-performance, anti-opera.
It is easy for us to be seduced by this human mosaic with its seemingly carefree simplicity: an innocuous musical beachside with all its melancholia and novelty. But lurking in the lyrics lies the raison d’etre. Our waterways are threatened by multiple and cumulative threats. While we bathe in the waters that entertain us, the sea life is being choked by micro-plastics, and the pretty coral reefs we are admiring are being eroded, warns writer Vaiva Grainytė. The message is veiled in the beauty of the moment, but the messages are unequivocal and the paradoxes clear. In the “Chanson of admiration,” a woman finds beauty in these spoils: “emerald-colored bags, bottles, and red bottle caps /o the sea never had so much color.” There is no sabbatical for the environment.
The question is, does Sun and Sea succeed in mobilizing us to action? The messages are neither alarmist nor didactic. There are no exclamation marks, no combative sounds, no raised voices, but rather lulling melodies and subtle movements. Sun and Sea rises above the obvious and mundane and trusts that the affective power of arts can move us. It succeeds.