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Review: Technology Is in Control as We UPLOAD the Future at the Park Avenue Armory

Work by Michel van der Aa Showcases Julia Bullock and Roderick Williams

Review: Technology Is in Control as We UPLOAD the Future at the Park Avenue Armory
Bullock and Williams. Photo:
Stephanie Berger/Park Avenue Armory

I couldn't help thinking of a new science fiction-comedy series on Amazon during the local premiere of UPLOAD, the opera by Michel van der Aa at the Park Avenue Armory on Tuesday.

Both had the same name. Both explore a near future where technology controls everything, including the afterlife, as a person can choose to "upload" its consciousness to continue living digitally. Both pose questions, though in different ways, about humanity, technology, consumerism, and so on.

Of course, the focus was not on laughs in the van der Aa piece, though there is a reminder that there's no anti-aging cream when you are uploaded--the physical image that you arrive with is the one that you will continue to have--"so you'd better do your pushups before you go."

Review: Technology Is in Control as We UPLOAD the Future at the Park Avenue Armory
Bullock. Photo: Stephanie Berger​​​​​​/
Park Avenue Armory

Van der Aa functions as composer, librettist and director in the piece. (Madelon Kooijman and Niels Nuijten serve as dramaturgs.) He calls upon a variety of musical languages that are sometimes electronic, sometimes 12-tone-ish, sometimes almost melodic (especially when it is coming from the brilliant soprano Julia Bullock, ranging from almost mezzo-ish to silvery).

But his score was never produced in the same way twice as the story proceeded. (The stunning sound design was done by Tom Gelissen and Paul Jeukendrup.) The demanding music was sometime live, performed in the theatre by the Cologne, Germany-based Ensemble Musikfabrik under Otto Tausk; other times it was prerecorded--or even as a kind of holograph (with the fascinating work of baritone Roderick Williams)--as it all tells its rather straightforward story of "what-if"....

To wit, "what-if" all the data in a brain could be stored in a computer server somewhere around the world--holding on to all your unique characteristics and memories and attitudes, to release you from the pain or other suffering that wasn't expected when you signed up for the uploading? At that point, the brain ceases to be, though we continue BEING.

What if we had the choice of whether we could do this--in the case of UPLOAD, it is the father who chooses--although the final responsibility, the last word, of whether we are allowed to choose this "exit strategy" must be delegated to another person. In this case, it is his daughter--and she resents being put in this position without having been consulted in advance.

Review: Technology Is in Control as We UPLOAD the Future at the Park Avenue Armory
Bullock and Williams. Photo: Stephanie
Berger​​​​​​/Park Avenue Armory

When the father decides he want to be uploaded (i.e., to die) because he can't live the way he wants, he needs her final okay before he can move to this new, ideal mind-state, where a memory anchor keeps the data before the brain itself is destroyed so it can't be copied. No multiples are permitted, although new information continued to accrue.

But is he alive? She doubts it, even as she sees his image on the screens that slide across the stage; he is not so positive. For her, however, it is like he is dying twice. (More, he hopes she will eventually be uploaded herself--giving up her body and exist only in this kind of animated form that he wants--though it didn't turn out this way for his wife. The daughter does not seem to want to take up this new realm.)

To me, the music didn't seem to exist without the rest of the production around it, and it didn't always seem to add enough to the story being told. It was the set and lighting design by Theun Mosk--screens that added other people and locations that broadened the story, so it almost felt that the stage was full when only Bullock and (sometimes) Williams were really in front of us (or floating about us, projected on a theatre-wide banner). Among those in the stellar filmed cast were Katja Herbers, Ashley Zukerman, Esther Mugambi and Samuel West.

It reminded me of Richard Strauss's argument in CAPPRICCIO: the words or the music? As Strauss called the opera a "conversation piece"--talk as it did for three hours or so--but definitely the music was key. But UPLOAD was a conversation--more than anything else.

UPLOAD will be performed through March 30. See The Park Avenue Armory website for more information. It was commissioned by and in co-production with the Park Avenue Armory, Dutch National Opera, Opera Koln, Bregenzer Festspiele, Ensemble Musikfabrik and doubleA Foundation.

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