Sunken Garden

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Have you ever had a dream so vivid that it must have been real? Who can say it isn’t? The line of reality finds itself endlessly blurred in Sunken Garden, the fourth work of acclaimed Dutch composer Michel van der Aa. A film maker’s obsession with the disappearance of a young girl leads to the discovery of a walled garden, which is the barrier between life and death. But does this place actually exist or is it all simply a stunning piece of imagination? Sunken Garden integrates video and 3D technology, immersing the audience into an inescapable world of crime and mystery. This marks the American premiere of Sunken Garden and will be a true, one-of-a-kind production like you’ve never experienced before.

Starring Roderick Williams*Katherine Manley*Miah Persson*

Conductor Nicole Paiement • Director Michel Van Der Aa* • Set Designer and Lighting Designer Theun Mosk** • Costume Designer Astrid Schulz**

*Dallas Opera debut

Rated PG

Opera in Brief

Unfamiliar with this opera? Let YouTube’s The Listener’s Guide introduce you!


A PARACHUTIST FALLS TO EARTH. Toby Kramer, a wannabe video-artist, is visited by one Zenna Briggs in his basement flat. Zenna represents the James and Zenna Briggs Arts Foundation, and wishes to see Toby’s work in progress: a film about a vanished IT contractor named Simon Vines. It mixes short interviews with Simon’s ex-wife Ally, his landlady Mrs. Wales, and friend Sadaqat who lives in a psychiatric ward and believes that a staff-member, Doctor Marinus, is an incorporeal being. Zenna is captivated by Toby’s ‘Portrait of a Missing Man’ and gives Toby a fat banker’s draft.

Three months later. Zenna visits Toby for an update. Toby confesses he hasn’t found Simon Vines; but has identified a girl, Amber Jacquemain, whom Simon Vines met while visiting Sadaqat. Unfortunately, Amber has also vanished into thin air. Toby plays excerpts from an interview with Amber’s mother, Portia, who assumes her daughter is having a(nother) fling with an Inappropriate man and will reappear when ‘the wonga’s running low’. Zenna guesses Simon and Amber eloped, but then Toby shows her video clips from Amber’s iPhone: this hedonistic montage includes Amber describing a dream of a sunken garden, where she’s innocent of certain crimes. Zenna hands over more money and leaves. Toby interacts with Amber’s image like a man losing his heart and his sanity.

March. Zenna now wants to see a return on the Foundation’s investment. Toby claims that Simon and Amber were abducted. Sceptically, Zenna asks for proof. Toby shows new footage of Sadaqat, who now asserts that the missing man and woman were the victims of a hunter who uses the dream of a peaceful garden to entrap the tormented. Sadaqat repeats his assertion that Doctor Marinus is involved, and infers that Toby, too, dreams this dream. Zenna now tells Toby that the Foundation wants nothing more to do with these paranoid delusions.

His mind unspooling, Toby Kramer wanders the city’s edges until he comes upon a bright door in the pillar of a flyover. Toby goes through, and finds a sunken garden – and Simon Vines, or at least a frozen image of him which, when touched, bursts into brief, staticky, verbal life. The mysterious Marinus enters. Toby accuses her of somehow incarcerating Simon in this place. Marinus denies the charge. A living hologram of Amber appears and gives an equally cryptic account of herself before freezing. Toby asks what Marinus gains from this: Marinus demands that the garden’s maker step forward…

Through a vertical pond, Zenna appears: she and Marinus circle one another like mongoose and cobra. The garden, we learn, is an occult engine built by Zenna in the dusk between life and death. The garden converts the visitors’ souls and memories into immortality for its creator. After half a year in world-time, nothing is left of the visitors but undying moths. Zenna reveals her back-story from an orphaned half-caste girlhood in the British Raj to an undying architect of the occult in the twenty-first century. Marinus threatens to detonate her own powers, thereby destroying the sunken garden and everyone in it, unless Zenna agrees to this deal: allow Toby free passage back to the world; award Simon and Amber a ‘retrial’; and allow Marinus to dismantle the garden. With icy illgrace, Zenna agrees to the deal.

Simon and Amber reveal their back-stories, involving the cot-death of Simon’s daughter and an act of spite that killed Amber’s rival in love. Their stories told, the two withdraw. Zenna tells Marinus that the deal is off, so Marinus breaches the sunken garden and collapses, spent, as the dusk floods in. Mockingly, Zenna makes a second announcement: she is here not in body but only in spirit. Her corporeal self is safe in Toby’s basement flat, through the vertical pond. She intends to build another sunken garden, rendering Marinus’ sacrifice futile. But Zenna pays dearly for her mockery, as Marinus manages to uses her dying voltage to stun her enemy. In the last possible moment, Toby exits the garden via the vertical pond, but there is one serious catch…

Some weeks later. Toby ruminates on his awkward fate as a man trapped inside Zenna’s now-mortal body. He replays a film, the last that he – or ‘she’ – will ever shoot: it shows Portia Jacquemain, describing how she learnt that Amber’s body was found; and recalls a day, long ago, when she and her daughter shared a moment of pure understanding. Next up is Simon, large as life, discussing his grief and self-blame over the cot-death. He is dressed in parachuting gear, and Sadaqat and Mrs. Wales wave him onto a light aircraft. Up it climbs. Out he jumps. Look at it, this… massive, unfair, beautiful, cruel, miraculous… World-Machine. Look at it. And you think, ‘I’m a part of this, too.’  

Cast Biographies

Roderick Williams(Toby Kramer) enjoys relationships with all major UK opera houses, and has sung opera world premieres by David Sawer, Sally Beamish, Michael van der Aa, Robert Saxton and Alexander Knaifel.

He sings regularly with all the BBC and major UK orchestras, as well as the Berlin Philharmonic, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Russian National Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, and Bach Collegium Japan amongst others. His many festival appearances include the BBC Proms, Edinburgh, Cheltenham, Aldeburgh and Melbourne.

Roderick Williams has an extensive discography. He is a composer and has had works premiered at the Wigmore and Barbican Halls. In December 2016 he won the prize for best choral composition at the British Composer Awards.

Katherine Manley(Zenna Briggs) Born in Leicestershire, Katherine Manley studied at the Benjamin Britten International Opera School at the Royal College of Music, London, graduating in 2006. 

Kate enjoys a busy schedule on both the operatic and concert stages. Kate’s recent highlights include Wife in the world premiere of The Last Hotel by Donnacha Dennehy (Edinburgh, Dublin, London and New York), Peri in Schumann Das Paradies und die Peri in Moscow, Solomon with the Niedersächsicher Chorverband in Hannover, and The Hunger with "Alarm Will Sound" in St Louis and New York.  Engagements in 2017 include The Last Hotel in Luxembourg and Van der Aa’s Blank Out in Helsinki.

Miah Person(Iris Marinus) Internationally-renowned Swedish soprano Miah Persson has worked all over the world recitalist and concert artist as well as on the operatic stage.

Miah has appeared at the Wiener Staatsoper, Metropolitan Opera New York, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Berlin State Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper Munich, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, and Opera du Rhin Strasbourg, among many others.

Engagements in the 16/17 season and beyond include Donna Elvira Don Giovanni with Opera de Lyon; Haydn Nelson Mass at the Internationale Stiftung Mozarteum; Mahler 2 at the Philharmonie Luxembourg; title role L’incoronazione di Poppea at Carnegie Hall; Beethoven Missa Solemnis in Ann Arbor; a US recital tour with Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau, and Donna Elvira Don Giovanni at the Liceu Barcelona.

Production Biographies

Nicole Paiement(Conductor) has an international reputation as a conductor of contemporary music and opera. As Artistic Director of Opera Parallèle, Paiement has been an advocate for many new works and innovative productions. Paiement is Principal Guest Conductor at Dallas Opera, and a conducting faculty member for the Hart Institute for Women Conductors.  She has recently appeared with the Glimmerglass Festival, Saratoga Opera, Atlanta Opera, Washington National Opera and OtherMinds. Upcoming engagements include debuts at Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Houston Grand Opera and Seattle Opera and a return to Washington National Opera, Glimmerglass and Dallas Opera. Her recordings include many world premiere works. Last year, Paiement was awarded the American Composer’s Forum "Champion of the New Music" Award, for her outstanding contribution to New Music. 

Michel Van der Aa(Director) Michel van der Aa, winner of the 2015 Johannes Vermeer Award and 2013 Grawemeyer award, is one of today’s most sought-after composers and stage directors. A pioneer in the realms of new music and technology, his staged works – incorporating film and sampled soundtrack – are a seamless hybrid of musical theatre and multimedia. Netherlands-born, van der Aa maintains strong roots in his home country including close ties with the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. The Concertgebouw Orchestra announced a partnership with van der Aa with the position of ‘House Composer’, which led to the creation of several major works. In 2015-16, Van der Aa created an interactive digital song cycle that was released as a website and smartphone app at the end of May 2015.

Theun Mosk(Set and Lighting Designer) works as scenographer, lighting designer, set designer and theatre maker. In 2013 Mosk worked as the set and lighting designer on Michel van der Aa’s Sunken Garden, and in 2016, Mosk staged a new work of American Composer Huang Ruo in collaboration with ASKOlschönberg ensemble. Last year he made the scenography of Privacy by De Warme Winke, coproduced by Wunderbaum, at HAU in Berlin and Holland Festival 2016. He has a permanent collaboration with de Veenfabriek / Paul Koek. In 2009 they staged the Dutch premiere of The City by Martin Crimp, and in 2013 they staged Moby Dick with a new script written by Peter Verhelst at the Schauspielhaus Bochum. In February 2018 he worked on Romeo & Juliet with Ballet BC Vancouver at the Banff Center.