A crowded beach. A day not so much languorous as sweltering. About 20 people cram onto a small square of sand, among them a fidgety workaholic, unable to relax; a wealthy mum with barely half an eye on her kid; a long-distance couple snatching a few hours together before tomorrow’s parting flight. Underneath the glare of the sun - and of an audience - they break into song.
This is opera, but not as we know it. Sun & Sea (Marina) opens at the Albany in Deptford this week and is an unlikely smash-hit work of - what? I guess, performance art? A 70-minute non-narrative live opera on a four-hour loop, it won the Golden Lion, the highest award at the Venice Biennale when it premiered there for Lithuania in 2019, and generated three-to-four-hour-long queues throughout that summer, just to get in to see it.
Since then it has been shown in Bergen, Copenhagen, Rome, New York, Philadelphia and LA, among other cities, to similar audience reactions. It’s UK premiere this week is presented by LIFT theatre festival, the Serpentine’s Back to Earth exhibition and We Are Lewisham, the London Borough of Culture programme.
Generally, says the project’s curator Lucia Pietroiusti, “almost everyone would just walk out in floods of tears”. Not because, as is usual in opera, some poor woman has died, but because this is a show about climate change, and how we are apathetically letting it happen, even though we know we’re hurtling towards disaster.
Even so, it’s not obviously a tear-jerker. The music, says the show’s writer Vaiva GrainytÄ, is “very poppy and kind of cheerful”, and her libretto is, on paper, quite funny - the tin-eared ‘wealthy mommy’ wangs on about how many of “the world’s great oceans” her family will visit this year, and how incredible the coral reefs look now that they’ve been bleached to white; a philosopher muses poetically on the journey of an imported banana; a song of complaint rants petulantly about people leaving litter or letting their dogs “shit on the beach” and leave fleas in the sand.
But after a while, as you tune in, all this cumulative chatter starts to become rather troubling. A short paean to the beauty of the sea is pretty sobering: “Rose-coloured dresses flutter: Jellyfish dance along in pairs – With emerald-colored bags, Bottles and red bottle-caps. O the sea never had so much colour!” Ermmm...
Or: “One doesn’t know what to expect…/ Even snow in summer wouldn’t surprise me!/ Everything is out of joint:/ The beginning of May brought frost and snow/ And winter gives us buds and mushrooms…” one singer remembers. It’s alarmingly close to conversations we’ve all had about the weird weather - how much longer before we’re at the buds and mushrooms at Christmas stage of the apocalypse? “I found three chanterelles!/ The end of December, how come?/ As granny liked to say: ‘The end of the world!’” Oh gawd.
“I joked once that it had the same amount of pathos as a ham sandwich falling on the floor,” says Pietroiusti, who also heads up an organisation called Radical Ecology, which develops educational materials, artist commissions and events to stimulate new thinking and action on environmental matters. “But then a strange thing that happens when you spend time with it is that because of the fact that you're faced with a scene that you know, for many, perhaps most, of the audience members it mirrors a lived, mundane, everyday kind of reality.” And once they’d seen it, they told everyone they met about it. “I think, on the first day, we had 17 people that came in the entire day. And then by day three, there were about 3,000.”
It didn’t actually start out as a piece about climate change, explains GrainytÄ, but came about from an image she and her co-creators, director RugilÄ BarzdÅ¾iukaitÄ and composer Lina LapelytÄ had been pondering for a while - that of looking down on a group of humans as if in a science experiment (in Sun & Sea, the audience watches from a gallery above the action). “While thinking about those half-nude bodies exposed on a beach, there was the intuition of a bigger body, the body of earth. So we arrived at the topic of ecology quite accidentally.”
Once they got there, though, there was the question of how to deal with something so huge and, frankly, scary, in a way that wouldn’t actively drive people away.
“Concerning lyrics, the idea was to make it sound quite mundane, because, like people are sunbathing, you know? They should sing something simple and it's like microstories told from an ‘I’ perspective, so the audience can connect to it easily,” says GrainytÄ. “The main idea was to talk about it in an ironic and humorous way, but also to have in mind this feeling of the end and catastrophe.”
Humour is, she says, “such a powerful tool. We are already, I guess, tired of this doomsday rhetoric, we engage in it every day while while reading news, and it's scary and overwhelming - the human brain just tends to shut down and ignore”. Humour, she suggests, allows you to open a door to “melancholy or catastrophe” and “just embrace it”. If past experience is anything to go by, we’ll all be sobbing our way out by the end of it.
Sun & Sea is at The Albany, Deptford from June 23 to July 10; liftfestival.com/event/sun-sea