*Upload,* March 28, 2022
I saw *Upload* at the Park Avenue Armory on March 28, 2022. It's a new multimedia opera by Michel van der Aa. It was a live opera with some pre-recorded music, a live chamber ensemble (eleven players), quite a lot of pre-recorded film, and some live video elements. This is my feeling about multimedia elements in classical performances: it has to add something, it has to be used in a compelling and meaningful way, it can't just be something extra. This show definitely passed that test - - the subject was technology so the media made perfect sense and added a great deal.
Van der Aa was in so many ways the creator of this piece: he wrote the music, wrote the libretto, directed the film, and directed the stage production. The story is about a woman and her father. It's unclear whether the father is terminally ill or suicidal but he decides to use a new technology called an Upload - - you spend a week at this institute and speak with their staff, who also speak with your loved ones about you. The staff does a whole barrage of tests, ending with an elaborate mapping of your brain. At the end of the week you're "terminated" (aka killed) and replaced by a video representation of you, which can speak, think, and feel as you did.
The man goes through this process and has the Upload delivered to his daughter. He doesn't tell her about it ahead of time (bad idea) and she's angry that he did this without consulting her, plus she's not at all happy with the 2D replica of him. Her best line goes something like this: "Mapping a Stradivarius is not the same as listening to Bach."
I wasn't always convinced that it was an opera. It often felt like a play with a strong film element. The vocal lines were well written for the voices but often I could accurately predict where the melodies were going. This became a little annoying after a while. The instrumental writing was problematic on two levels. First, it was nearly always dense - - when they were playing (and there were, wisely, some moments no music) it seemed like nearly everyone was playing all the time. Some more variety in texture would have been welcome. And second, van der Aa has a definite case of Ants in His Pants, which you know I hate. An overly active, twitchy kind of music.
The singers were Julia Bullock and Roderick Williams. I heard Bullock at Merkin Concert Hall years ago in recital, she's a compelling singer with a lovely voice. I'd heard of Williams but never heard him before. They both sang beautifully and played their roles with conviction and sincerity.
The high point of the show was a scene where the father was having his voice imprinted. He sang "sheep" and the machine echoed "sheep, sheep" back at him. He sang "ship" on a different pitch ("ship, ship"), "teacher," ("teacher, teacher"), each pitch and word layering itself on top of the previous pitches and words. It was beautiful to listen to and the use of technology was closely tied into the story.