In China you can dream. Cities are being built at a stroke, and fantastical ideas turning into concrete and steel. But when dreams can become reality, be careful what you dream.
As Big As The Sky is a new opera by Arnoud Noordegraaf (composer, director), Adrian Hornsby (libretto, screenplay) and Ai Weiwei (set design, film). Inspired by the rise of China, it confronts the astonishing wave of development currently sweeping across the country, and the dramatic collisions this creates between traditional culture and globalizing forces, and between a once European world and a freshly Chinese future.
Set in a remote Chinese village, the opera centres around Sem Aers, a European architect commissioned to build a utopic megastructure there, and Qin Mulan, a celebrity singer of Chinese opera who is set to perform in the completed building. Sem falls in love with her song, and the pair embark upon an intoxicating romance. However beneath the layers of stage make-up, Mulan is a canny modern woman with strong business instincts, and an understanding of the project’s true value as a tourist attraction.
These themes throw up a series of unique musical collisions — notably between traditional Kunqu opera and Wagnerian late Romanticism, both employed in a contemporary idiom. Variously quoting, morphing and contrasting different styles, Noordegraaf conjures a rich musical palette of colours and rhythms: variously ironic, humourous, moving, and very now.
A bold stage design from China’s foremost artist, Ai Weiwei, plays an integral role in the piece. Video footgage shot by flying drones communicates the changing landscapes of contemporary China, and at key moments in the opera, these flow over a giant hanging three dimensional artwork, which itself slowly rotates to express the inversion of heaven and earth.
The libretto is by Adrian Hornsby, also co-author of an award-winning 800-page book on China, and consequently the research is unusually detailed, and the story both compelling and sophisticated. Noordegraaf and Hornsby previously collaborated on the music theatre productions A.M. and Urwald.
As Big As The Sky is a remarkably ambitious modern opera — at once a penetrating comment on some of the most vital themes of the 21st century, and, in the great tradition of dramatic art, a passionate story of doomed love. The world premiere was on 11 June 2015 at the Holland Festival performed by the Asko|Schönberg Ensemble and an international cast of singers.