What is a Climate Opera?

Sun & Sea is an operatic installation created by Lithuanian filmmaker and director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, writer Vaiva Grainytė and artist and composer Lina Lapelytė. It won the top prize at the Venice Biennale in 2019, and is being staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from September 15 to 26.

Joshua Barone of the New York Times described it as a beach that arrived at the front door of a theatre in Brooklyn, its “raw ingredients” being 21 tons of sand, packaged in 840 50-pound bags dropped onto the theater’s tarp-covered floor. Barone praised it  as a “masterpiece for the era of climate change”, noting that it is “neither didactic nor abstract, it is an insidiously enjoyable mosaic of consumption, globalization and ecological crisis”.


The production is the second collaboration of creators — Barzdžiukaitė, Grainytė and Lapelytė, whose friendship began in the Lithuanian town where they all grew up. Barzdžiukaitė eventually became a director; Grainytė, a writer; Lapelytė, a musical artist. In working together, they were attracted to opera, they said, because it provided “a meeting place” for their individual practices. As a trio, Grainytė said they could listen to each other and “dive into this process without fighting or dealing with egos.” Their first project was “Have a Good Day!,” which was shown in New York for the Prototype festival in 2014.

The characters in Grainyte’s libretto tell their stories as monologues and vignettes, broken up by choruses of sinister serenity. In his review, Barone quotes one of the most telling moments in the opera:

Rose-colored dresses flutter:
Jellyfish dance along in pairs —
With emerald-colored bags,
Bottles and red bottle caps.

O the sea never had so much color!

The creators noted that they didn’t want to be overly declarative, and removed words which were dealing with ecological issues directly. They wished to avoid the impression that they were climate activists, one of the reasons being that the production is not entirely eco-friendly, using sand transported by truck from VolleyballUSA in New Jersey to Brooklyn. (Nevertheless, after “Sun & Sea” closes, the sand will be vacuumed up, sanitized and repurposed.)

Regarding the music, Lapelytė described it as being quite “poppy”, so it would remind listeners of a song “that you know well but you can’t say which… reduced to very few notes, and also repetitive like a pop song.”


Read the full review at nytimes.com