Both Persson in her live work and Williams onscreen are magnifient singers and magnetic presences; in time, you start to believe that the two actually are interacting – an illusion supported by skillful amplification and a sound system capable of making Williams sound present without rendering Persson artificial.
What transpires in Blank Out, then, through its echoed images, repeated and exchanged vocal numbers, shifting perspectives, and conflicting narratives, comes off a bit like Pirandello as filtered through David Lynch. Indeed, it felt wholly serendipitous to encounter this slippery vignette so soon after absorbing Twin Peaks: The Return, where, similarly, almost nothing was what it first appeared to be, and everything felt vaguely uneasy even in the quietest moments.
An important point, maybe the important point: Van der Aa uses the extensive techniques and tools at his disposal to provide a dramatic experience he couldn’t convey otherwise. His music – a mélange of stark melodies and bruised harmonies; spare polyphony among Persson (and Perssons), Williams, and the recorded Netherlands Chamber Choir; and atmospheric electronica – complements his beautifully elliptical text, conveying mood potently. As in his previous, more elaborate opera Sunken Garden — which also featured Williams and 3-D film, and which I reviewed in its London premiere for The New York Times – Van der Aa borrows from dance-floor styles with ease and assurance, glitching and flipping digital strands with unusual authority.
Yet while the score and book of Blank Out absolutely withstand scrutiny and reward the listener, on their own they likely could not convey in full the subtleties and mysteries Van der Aa brings to thrilling life on stage and screen. And if it’s true, yes, that few creative artists are capable of playing auteur to a mode of musical theater so richly ambitious, Van der Aa’s example serves nevertheless to show what’s possible when powerful music, refined text, inventive stagecraft, and an affirmative embrace of technology are all brought to bear by someone who clearly has faith in opera’s potential to provide a vital, exciting, inimitable experience.
Blank Out repeats at the Park Avenue Armory Sept 22, 25, and 27 at 8pm, and Sept 24 at 3pm; armoryonpark.org