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As Big As The Sky
contemporary opera
Arnoud Noordegraaf: composition, direction, film
Adrian Hornsby: libretto, screenplay
Ai Weiwei: set design, film
premiered 11 June 2015, Muziekgebouw, Amsterdam, with the Holland Festival
installation version May 2016, The New Institute, Rotterdam, with OperaDagen

In China you can dream. Everywhere cities are being built at a stroke, and fantastical ideas turning into concrete and steel. But when dreams can become reality, be careful what you dream …

European architect Sem Aers is working hard. He has to, given the speed and scale at which the project’s moving. And the nature of it all. A commission to design an iconic megastructure in a remote village in China has lured Sem into visions of power and fame. His client Wu Cai, who grew up humbly among the village’s cows and rice paddies, is now one of China’s fresh generation of self-made billionaires. Returning to his former home to realise a boyhood dream, Wu calls for a monument to be built — both to himself, and to the rise of the world’s newest superpower. It requires the creation of an architecture that is itself dreamlike, utopian, transformative.

Sem draws furiously — deliriously — but the plans keep expanding beyond him. The village needs to be demolished and rebuilt to be more authentic, super-hotels must be incorporated for tourists, show rooms for luxury goods …. If reality can bend one way, then why not another? Just as the distortions are reaching terrifying proportions, Sem hears a woman’s voice. Below his office, celebrity singer Qin Mulan is rehearsing a scene from a traditional Chinese opera, which she is set to perform at the opening of the completed building. Her aria is beautiful. Could this be the thread he needs: a glimpse onto authentic culture, and at last the touch of something human?

As Big As The Sky is a new opera by Arnoud Noordegraaf (composer, director), Adrian Hornsby (libretto, screenplay) and Ai Weiwei (set design, film). Inspired by the rise of China, it confronts the astonishing wave of building that is currently sweeping across the country, and the dramatic collisions it creates between traditional culture and globalizing forces; and between a once European world and a freshly Chinese future. Musically it merges Western Romanticism with Chinese opera, and combines these onstage with an innovative use of film, mixed-media, and original installation art. A bold stage design from China’s foremost artist, Ai Weiwei, plays an integral role in the piece, featuring a giant rotating sculpture, and video footage shot by flying drones of the country’s changing landscapes.

As Big As The Sky is a remarkably ambitious modern opera — at once a penetrating comment on some of the most vital themes of the 21st century, and, in the great tradition of dramatic art, a passionate story of doomed love. The world premiere was on 11 June 2015 at the Holland Festival performed by the Asko|Schönberg Ensemble and an international cast of singers.



‘an opera of striking invention … full of humour and sparkling performances’
The Wire

‘an original and compelling combination of film, theatre and opera … avoids pointing a moralising finger at China while keeping an eye for the absurd details that create this fascinating universe’
NRC Handelsblad

‘captivating visuals and innumerable stimulating ideas’

‘a sharp libretto … Hornsby ably turns the thumbscrews on his protagonist’
de Volkskrant

    photographs by Ada Nieuwendijk

Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ, Amsterdam (map)

Thu 11 June 2015, 20.30
Fri 12 June 2015, 20.30
Sun 14 June 2015, 20.30

All performances in English and Chinese with English surtitles. Lasts 1 hour 40 minutes.

Sem Aers — Martijn Cornet, baritone
Qin Mulan — He Yi, soprano
Luo Ling — Zhang Bo, tenor
Kathy Bash — Merlijn Runia, mezzo soprano

conductor: Bas Wiegers
assistant conductor: MaNOj Kamps

Mirjam Teepe, flute/piccolo; Daniël Boeke, clarinet/bass clarinet; Remko Edelaar, bassoon/contrabassoon; Jan Harshagen, horn; Frank Braafhart, trumpet; Ger de Zeeuw, percussion; Niels Meliefste, percussion; Marijke van Kooten, violin; Bernadette Verhagen, viola; Doris Hochscheid, cello; James Oesi, double bass; Wu Wei, sheng; Jelle Verstraten, soundscapes

‘Skype scene’ choir: Cappella Amsterdam

film actors: Ai Weiwei, William Sutton, Claudia Trajano Faria, Mary Louise Moher, Sue Ann Yeoh, Henk Zwart, Chiho Totogawa, Takashi Iwaoka

art direction: Studio V'TH&V, Merel van 't Hullenaar & Niels Vis
deputy set designer: Bart Visser
dramaturg: Janine Brogt
Chinese translations: Qin Liwen

producer: Roland Spekle
coproduction: Holland Festival, Barooni, Asko|Schönberg
with support by: Ammodo, Fonds Podiumkunsten, Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst, Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, Fonds voor Hedendaagse Muziek, Adèle Wickert- fonds, Fontein Tuynhout Fonds, VSBfonds


The New Institute, Rotterdam

Art installation of Ai Weiwei’s set with video from the opera projected onto it
for OperaDagen