Skip to content

Michel van der Aa transcends himself in opera Blank Out

As soon as soprano Miah Persson enters the stage, we hear a loud, electronic crack. Is a branch breaking here, one of composer Michel van der Aa's (Oss, 1970) favourite sounds? Or is it a stone crashing into another after all? Boulders play a major role in his latest opera Blank Out; at the end, they crush the protagonist's white Volkswagen Beetle with thunderous noise.

Van der Aa composed his based on texts by South African poet Ingrid Jonker Blank Out for the Opera Forward Festival and was heartily applauded after its premiere on 20 March at the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ. As in previous operas like One, After Life and Sunken Garden and in the cello concerto Up Close the Dutch multimedia specialist once again zooms in on the relationship between life and death, between young and old, between here and hereafter. In doing so, he seems to be getting closer and closer to the core of what he wants to say and has outdone himself in this spot-on production.

Blank Out tells the story of a traumatised woman who wanders into the past, in which she saw her seven-year-old son swallowed by the waves. Paralysed with fear, she was left watching and for the rest of her life she is consumed by guilt. But then the little boy suddenly comes to life - and tells a very different story as an adult: not he, but she drowned, when she pulled him out of the water by his wrist.

Blank Out Michel van der Aa with Roderick Williams (c) Marco Borggreve
Blank Out Michel van der Aa with Miah Persson and Roderick Williams (c) Marco Borggreve

The treacherous effect of our memory is a recurring theme with Van der Aa: nothing is unambiguous and as a visitor you have to give your own meaning to the images and sounds he presents you with. But where previous productions sometimes suffered from too many interpretation possibilities, the story is now more concentrated, giving emotion and compassion more chance.

[Tweet "True to herself, Van der Aa once again lets the protagonist set the scene."]True to herself, Van der Aa once again lets the protagonist set the scene and fuse it with film images in 3D. While singing largely a cappella an intense lament for her lost child, Miah Persson crafts a farmhouse in the polder. Life-size, we see her appear behind the cardboard frame and put miniature furniture in the room, which transform into the backdrop of her actions through a different camera angle. This is how she reconstructs the past in which she - and later her son, wandered around

With stunning naturalness, we see her persona split in two and even three and engage in 'conversation' with herself and then with her child (the baritone Roderick Williams), who incidentally only appears in the film. Persson sings her dashing lines, fanning out across all registers flawlessly and with great empathy, and gets equally fine rebuttals from Williams, who previously featured in After Life and Sunken Garden. Remarkably, not only do their vocals sound completely lip-synched, but also very direct - at Sunken Garden it was disturbing that the sounds seemed to come not from the singers' mouths, but from speakers on either side of the stage.

In addition to the superb performances by Persson and Williams, there is a starring role for the Netherlands Chamber Choir, which on the soundtrack sometimes builds Renaissance-like polyphonic tones and then swings like a cosy barbershop choir. Van der Aa keeps the instrumental part small, with languid rhythms from dance and techno and film-music-like harmonies intersected with technical 'breakdowns'. These illustrate en passant the dysfunction of our memory.

As in his previous productions, Van der Aa plays a fine game with foreground and background, where film and reality seem to coincide completely. For instance, you dive away involuntarily when the stone wall behind Williams explodes and the boulders seem to fly straight into your face. Also beautiful is the moment when Williams pulls on a 'film roll', which Persson unrolls on stage and throws back to him, upon which he lands with a thud in his room. Downright moving is the moment when mother and son 'dance' together, after she 'rescues' him from a swirling lava flow - red-lit aluminium foil that she pulls up onto the stage from under his film bench.

Blank Out Michel van der Aa with MIah Persson & Roderick Williams (c) Marco Borggreve
Blank Out Michel van der Aa with Miah Persson & Roderick Williams (c) Marco Borggreve

Van der Aa's beloved glass jars are not missing either: Williams fills them with withered leaves from the tree near his childhood home. Disconcerting is the moment when an arm forces his head up with a jerk from a bath full of leaves: the rescue operation by his mother? Then Persson disappears from the scene and we are left with Williams and his mourning. This is the only unsatisfactory part of the opera: it takes too long. With the wall exploding, everything has really been said, but after this comes the shower of stones on the Volkswagen. A haunting, Hitchcock-like image admittedly, but it adds little more.

It would also have been nicer if Williams had bowed along from his movie screen at the final applause. But these are comments on an otherwise impeccable and compelling opera, in which Van der Aa has an eye and ear for lyricism and emotional eloquence more than before.

Blank Out can still be seen on 21 and 25 March at the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ. Tickets via this link.

I spoke for Culture Press about the Opera Forward Festival with countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and director Peter Sellars, you can read about it via this link

Thea Derks

Thea Derks studied English and Musicology. In 1996, she completed her studies in musicology cum laude at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in contemporary music and in 2014 published the critically acclaimed biography 'Reinbert de Leeuw: man or melody'. Four years on, she completed 'An ox on the roof: modern music in vogevlucht', aimed especially at the interested layperson. You buy it here: In 2020, the 3rd edition of the Reinbertbio appeared,with 2 additional chapters describing the period 2014-2020. These also appeared separately as Final Chord.View Author posts

Private Membership (month)
5€ / Maand
For natural persons and self-employed persons.
No annoying banners
A special newsletter
Own mastodon account
Access to our archives
Small Membership (month)
18€ / Maand
For cultural institutions with a turnover/subsidy of less than €250,000 per year
No annoying banners
A premium newsletter
All our podcasts
Your own Mastodon account
Access to archives
Posting press releases yourself
Extra attention in news coverage
Large Membership (month)
36€ / Maand
For cultural institutions with a turnover/subsidy of more than €250,000 per year.
No annoying banners
A special newsletter
Your own Mastodon account
Access to archives
Share press releases with our audience
Extra attention in news coverage
Premium Newsletter (substack)
5 trial subscriptions
All our podcasts

Payments are made via iDeal, Paypal, Credit Card, Bancontact or Direct Debit. If you prefer to pay manually, based on an invoice in advance, we charge a 10€ administration fee

*Only for annual membership or after 12 monthly payments

en_GBEnglish (UK)