If you had to choose the one moment of your life to live within forever, what would it be? That is the premise of After Life, a contemporary mixed-media opera coming to Melbourne in October as part of the Melbourne Festival.
Based on a film of the same name, After Life premiered in 2006 and has moved from strength to strength, touring over Europe to critical acclaim. Within it, characters who have died must choose the one perfect moment of their life in order to move on to the afterlife.
Creator and director Michel van der Aa began writing the opera in 2003, using the film as his inspiration. “The film has a very documentary-like style and we see people talking about their life, sifting through memories, trying to find one defining moment of their life,” says van der Aa.
The opera follows this style, using films of the actors during the audition and rehearsal process to add a new layer to the piece. “I made an audition call and asked [the actors] 'if you had to look back on your life what moment would you choose to live in forever and ever',” explains van der Aa. “The camera was rolling from the minute they stepped in the room.”
It is this element of film that sets After Life apart from most other contemporary operas. As the different elements of film, theatre and opera share the foreground at different times, a conversation between the mediums is created to place After Life in a genre of its own. "There are quite a few moments where we are watching film for a few minutes instead of the music,” says van der Aa. “We managed to stretch the vocabulary [of opera] quite a bit. There are moments when singers sing duet with themselves, interacting with the film which creates an internal monologue within characters.”
The question at the core of the opera is without doubt an important and confronting one, and each character must come to terms with it in their own way. “There is a variety of possibilities and the problems people have in finding their perfect moments,” van der Aa explains. “It's a struggle for everyone…together the characters give a very broad spectrum of emotions and there is something for everyone.”
Van der Aa directed all the elements of the piece, he says, “so that the layers worked well together, related to one another and worked in harmony with the music I was composing.” The costume designer, lighting designer and dramaturge all contributed to the piece, however, and this collaboration proved crucial to ensuring the opera remained honest. “When you tackle all the layers yourself there is a risk that you will overlook things, so they were very important in asking the difficult questions and holding the mirror up to me.”
The Melbourne production will see four of the original performers return, with two new singers completing the cast of 2 sopranos, 1 mezzo-soprano, 1 alto and a high and a low baritone. A 23-piece chamber orchestra including a harpsichord and an organ help give the music a contemporary baroque feel.
Van der Aa attributes the opera’s success to its universal themes. “People related very strongly to the theme of the opera and started asking themselves the same questions that the characters ask, which is a dream for a theatre maker because it means people are engaging in the work.”
Despite its potentially confronting theme, however, After Life is essentially a colourful, positive piece. “It's about human nature, living your life intensely and living in the moment. It's not about death at all, but it's about sifting through your memory and finding the highlights and celebrating them."