Michel van Aa’s latest opera explores the transhuman existence. A life in cyberspace without the burden of a physical body. Homo Deus in the Blockchain.
The road to heaven, the place where you can drift eternally in supreme bliss, used to lead via the church, via God - now it leads via technology. UPLOAD by Michel van der Aa - composer and multimedia theatre maker - tells the story of a man who has his brain uploaded to the cloud. In saying goodbye to his physical existence, he hopes, along with filtering out his traumas, including the death of his wife, for an eternally happy existence on the network servers of the blockchain.
UPLOAD saw its theatre premiere postponed due to the pandemic. It was released as an opera film (viewable on medici.tv) but as a live event, we had to wait almost a year and a half for it. The reality of Covid, where we were thrown back to our computer screens to see our colleagues, family and friends, provided a kind of preview. We noticed what we were missing when we were cut off from the outside world and communication had to take place without tactile experience.
UPLOAD is about the answer to the question what remains of a human being when you separate the mind from the body. What exactly is the relationship between body and mind? To what extent does one influence the other? For example, does the mind know hunger and lust, once stripped of its physical ballast? At first, the man (the father) is happy with his bodiless existence (as if he has entered a dream of Arthur Schopenhauer by withdrawing from the world of physical burdens and lusts). But he encounters his daughter's incomprehension and grief. For her, the physical aspect of their relationship is vital. She can no longer hold his hand. Where are those hugs that go way back to her times as a little girl? "Scanning a brain to copy a personality is like digitising a Stradivarius to listen to Bach," she tells her father. From Bach to Blockchain and back.
With a daughter who is estranged from him, the father feels increasingly unhappy and finally asks his daughter to pull the plug on his digital existence. The mind may be autonomous, but it can certainly succumb to loneliness.
Scanning a brain to copy a personality is like digitising a Stradivarius to listen to Bach
Richard Wagner brought together the various art forms of his time (besides music, painting and set design) in a Gesamtkunstwerk. What paintings were in the 19th century, film and video are to the 21st century and in UPLOAD (in Van der Aa's work for that matter) they form an integral part of the performance. Whereas Wagner did not escape the primacy of music (he therefore would abandon the term Gesamtkunstwerk), here film and multimedia are part of an end result in which all the separate parts take up a proportionate share of the greater whole. No single part pushes the other part away. A Gesamtkunstwerk, in the true sense of the word, for the 21th century. The multimedia spectacle in UPLOAD gives new content to the concept of opera, adds new dimensions to it. It provides spectacle, food for thought and a promise for the future. Here, technology is not a gimmick or a gadget, a forced attempt to make something of the past relevant to the present, but inalienably instrumental in telling a story about the here and now (and a possible near future). The result is organic and, despite the focus on a transhuman digital existence in cyberspace, deeply human.
The father is played by Roderick Williams who sings the role live in motion capture cameras. We see the pixelated result of him communicating with his daughter who is played by Julia Bullock. She has the most lyrical vocal lines of the opera and a beautiful aria as well: "This is where you are now". The vocals are electronically amplified and distorted but the result remains organic throughout. They are part of a music that, in this multi-layered piece of music-movie theater, triggers its own variety of interpretations. It seems as if the instrumentarium (hectic, multicoloured, electronic and analogue, live and from tape) together with the vocals expresses the duality of body and mind. With the instruments as the physical processes and the vocal lines floating ethereally over them, as if they were the sounds of the world of the mind. No obvious chord progressions, but exciting music that is performed by the Ensemble MusikFabrik under the direction of Otto Tausk with great precision and vigour; the live music must coincide with the recorded music, and in the result, it is hardly possible to hear what comes from tape and what comes from the orchestra. The result does not take away anything of the immediacy of attending a live performance.
UPLOAD is a Gesamtkunstwerk, in the true sense of the word, for the 21th century
UPLOAD is told by singing, onstage acting and footage. On film, we see a flashback, shots in which we are explained what has preceded. At the place where the uploads take place - sanatorium Zonnestraal in Hilversum - we see a CEO (Ashley Zukerman) and a psychiatrist (Katja Herbers, who appeared a.o. with Zukerman in the series "Manhattan") explain how the procedure of uploading works. All the information in the world is digitally stored, except the contents of a brain. "Until now," they say and it becomes clear from their stories that technology is not going to wait for laws and regulations and will not answer (eagerly) to questions ethical in nature. If it can happen, it must happen. The urge of an ever-present need for change (not infrequently prompted by monetary gain) pushes forward what perhaps might best have been put on hold. It goes wrong in the case of the father. Instead of the upload filtering away his traumas, the grief over his wife's death remains. He is doomed to live with it forever. He asks his daughter to pull the plug out of his digital existence. Whether the daughter does so remains open. The play ends with a projection of father and daughter on the eve of the upload. It is a projection on a canvas that stretches from the second ring of the hall over the heads of the audience, with mighty visual results.
UPLOAD is a brilliant piece of musical theatre that gives us a glimpse into the future - not only of humanity and science, but also of what an opera in the 21st century can be. It sends us home with more than a few questions. What does it mean to be human? We contemplate it over a glass of wine, consider the desirability of an existence as a Digital Homo Deus, while our bodies sink gently into an easy chair.
UPLOAD (Dutch National Opera, Muziektheater Amsterdam 3 October 2021)
Dates: 1-8 October 2021
Libretto, music and direction: Michel van der Aa
Conductor: Otto Tausk
Decor and light: Theun Mosk
Costums: Elske van Buuren
Dramaturgy: Madelon Kooijman & Niels Nuijten
Father: Roderick Williams
Daughter: Julia Bullock
- Wouter de Moor