Sometimes going to the opera is just like a day at the beach.
The staging for Sun & Sea is unlike any other in what looks like Aliens scooped up a section of a beach mid-summer and plopped it down on the planet Brooklyn.
Bright as July the burning bulbs on the sides of the stage have a visceral heat accompanied by a smell of plastic and burning metal. The performance here at B.A.M is repeated 5 times in a row with no finale’ and no claps, it just repeats. Some of the last shows audience stay and some leave. When they do I maneuver to the smaller side of the rectangle where the lights are higher and the odor is less and the fans are set to a sea breeze. It blows me back thru the decades.
Summer 1979: The last item tossed into a stacked trunk before we get into the car is the paddle ball set.
We rub chrisco oil all over ourselves in the back seat of a gas guzzling manual Plymouth crooning to Billie Joel and press our forearms together in a made up olympic event to see who has the darkest tan. I shine and win the day, thanks Italia DNA. At the I47 road sign the dog is the first to smell the ocean and goes crazy out the window all ears and tails, then we all do.
The smell of the ocean is full of contradictions. A mix of salt, dead crab, funnel cake, and Hawain Tropic coconut sunscreen. It’s all tonights opera is missing to be a complete facsimile of the beach.
Before the car comes to a full stop we jump out to join a population of baskers and bathers on the New Jersey beach, press bobos filled with keys and combs into the sand – leap over a half buried body – then run into the ocean like it’s a pile of money.
Toes feel the unexpected first electric shock of cold water. The Atlantic Ocean is always colder than one thinks it will be, so you just have to do it before the waves do it for you. It’s the choice of slow torture or the guillotine.
Look north or south from our blanket and an infinite number of umbrellas spear the sand. Horseshoe crabs make an irregular line along the waters edge looking somehow prehistoric and futuristic all at once. The beach is not just the edge of sea and land but the edge of time and space especially when you’re a kid. Small boats adorn the horizon line while the rumble of an old winged plane pulls a banner above us that reads: WIN BIG GATEWAY 26 CASINO.
We build or own kingdoms, squeeze sand between our fingers, and drizzle it over bucket shaped sand castles including moats. Every few feet is a new territory of chairs and blankets to explore and possibly invade: The boombox blanket, the beach babe blanket, the baby wrapped in so many towels why even come to the beach and who’s watching that baby anyhow blanket, the chair readers blanket drooling on the copy of Robert Ludlum’s “The Matarese Circle”. You hear things on the beach you can’t hear anywhere else. “Don’t drop your ice cream onto the sand,” “why do adults have hairy backs like gorillas? Gross.” “I’ll race you into the water!”
We body surf till we’re dead, but there is no defeat in a battle well fought. Again and again into the water. The waves. Goliaths. My body flips in a washing machine of salt and adrenaline my head banging into the sand near shore sending salt water up my nose. I stagger upright out of splash and into whiteness. Back to the provisional blanket of safety to lay down with dark hair slicked back like a wannabe John Travolta. The oceans undulating rhythm of white noise merges with mist and sun. My eyes drift and follow the path of seagulls by their call or caw. I could sleep till the end of time except the dreamless sleep after play is brief.
My cousins like sneaky little crabs giggle just before they throw a cold bucket of water on my back…
Tonight’s opera, like many, is a tsunami of nostalgia to fill a novel with tales of the wildwood motels and boardwalk, the Ferris wheel, those tiny burrowing clams, miniature golf victories, Me and Raven banging naive teeth together, the lightning bug that was really an alien, the flood below the second floor pizza where we floated fleets of crust…
In a montage of sun-tan oils moving toward the present I see the beach stay the same but also change. Sun-tan oils are replaced with sun-screen lotions, car windows go electric, we waste gas on air condition now, and I go from begging family for ice-cream and quarters to sucking in my gut when girls walk by to outgrowing wildwood for Sea Isle to jump up and down like a crazy college student in bars like the OD and Shenanigans. Volleyball, chess, and Dr. Pepper hangovers.
No matter the changes, when the sun rises the beach is changeless and demands its toll in play. No matter ones age, come July we are all ageless and carry a silk-roads worth of coolers, noodles, arm chairs, and toys through the sand to the edge of the ocean to pay our toll in play.
The paddle-ball set comes out of the bag and I hit the ball toward the sun, the stage lights, and the present.
From the balcony of the opera I watch the ball fall back toward the performers into 25 tons of sand and 25 tons of metaphor. The theme of tonights opera is the end of the world
Theater is always voyeuristic, but looking down on beach bodies feels extra so, something about the bottoms of feet makes it feel more intrusive. The music is minimal with lines suggesting popular music but never overshadows the performers movements or vocals.
The orchestration sits off to the side, like the ocean.
The players are completely unselfconscious and I believe I’m eavesdropping on a real day at the beach. There is a real magic of theater taking place here and I feel a sympathy and envy toward the characters. The libretto sung by the key singers unfolds thru the characters’ personal songs that unfold the narrative:
Flying enroute to the beach the characters realize a volcano has erupted precipitating an extinction event that all the characters have to come to terms with.
Before traveling outside of New Jersey I didn’t even realize beaches had trees. Maybe that lack of trees in the opera is what took me back so far. To think that there could be beaches where kaleidoscopes of life and color are beneath the waves and not just a gray fear of stepping on crabs or needles. On one of those trips I stay at a hostel on the Big Island of Hawaii run by a British rasta with long dreads who casually organizes a midnight trip to the edge of the sea over a few bottles of Mickeys to see a live volcano. Volcanic glass beneath our feet and a feast of stars above, it’s hard not to stumble. We walk 40 minutes. Before seeing the lava we see trees burst into flame like cotton balls in the distance one by one. When we reach the ocean the steam bellows where the water meets the rock and it is close to spiritual.
No matter how romantic places like Hawaii, the Cayman Islands, Mexico, Costa Rica… might be, nothing compares to being at the Jersey shore. There’s something special about the childhood beach and being with your tribe and where you know you truly belong and are always welcome.
The characters of the opera are ill equipped to undo the global forces undoing their lives or avert the inevitable. The metaphors are thick and I try to find meaning in the variety of games and books the characters give their time. Are we all just pieces on a cosmic mandala board? The 3-d printer song is my favorite, but futile. All the characters have is the brief privilege to decide how to pass the time they have left.
The paddle-ball rackets are left in the sand while the pink rubber ball floats into the sea toward a setting sun with nothing left but the repetition, the repetition of waves and memory.
Anticipating this opera I couldn’t shake this old song from Morrissey, a favorite me and my cousins still pull out now and then.
So What’s Sun and Sea all about? Armageddon with a view from the beach.
Notes on the production:
By Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė
Evaldas Alekna, Aliona Alymova, Patrick Andrews, Marco Cisco, Auksė Dovydėnaitė, Saulė Dovydėnaitė, Claudia Graziadei, Artūras Miknaitis, Vytautas Pastarnokas, Eglė Paškevičienė, Lucas Lopes Pereira, Salomėja Petronytė, Kalliopi Petrou, Ieva Skorubskaitė, Svetlana Statkevičienė, and Nabila Dandara Vieira Santos.
Kasia Felice Barry, Raminta Barzdžiukienė, Natasha Calixte, Debbie Friedman, Cheryl George, Johnathan Gibbs, Gabriella Gil, Sonia Ganess, Alayah L. Glenn, Will Hantz, Haig Hovnanian, Dante Hussein, Bronwyn Karle, Dovydas Korba, Vincentas Korba, Elsa Mota, Nicolás Noreña, Azure D. Osborne-Lee, Jeronimas Petraitis, Juozas Petraitis, Pranas Petraitis, Mantas Petraitis, Haisu Qu, Phillip Rucker, Veronica Ryzio, Amanda Santiago, Timothy Scott, Jonas Statkevičius, Sajel Stewart-Verna, Zazel Taye, Kenneth Laboy Vazquez, Julian Wanderer, Derek Weng, Allen J. Zerkin, Ellen Einhorn Zerkin, Lu Zhang, and Zoe Ziegfeld
Beans and Grimaldi