5. August 2020

Interview with Michel van der Aa

What would happen if our mind lived forever? The film opera Upload, which premiered at the Dutch Nation Opera in Amsterdam on 20 March 2021, deals with these and other questions.

An interview with the composer Michel van der Aa by Mareike Winter on behalf of the Aventis Foundation, which supports Upload as part of its EXPERIMENTE#DIGITAL funding series.

On the one hand, the opera Upload deals with very current topics such as the digitalization of our lives or artificial intelligence, on the other hand it deals with one of the fundamental questions that has always preoccupied mankind: What if we could live forever?
How did this world of ideas come into being?

I always have been very interested in the area between live and death. I already wrote two operas about it. In Afterlife – my first big opera – people that die have to choose a moment from their lives and they live that moment forever. In Sunken Garden this place between heaven and earth is a bad place. There is this evil force that keeps people there, basically as batteries to gather their energy.

But in this opera the idea of extending lives is a very human thing. That’s why we invent medicine. It’s very deep inside all of us. But the idea I am dealing with in this opera, to prolong life, is a very human one. It is deeply rooted in all of us. That’s why we invent medicine. In recent years, I have noticed that this subject, which for a long time was mainly dealt with by futurists and science fiction authors, has gained more respect among regular scientists. They began to ask what the ethical consequences might be. If we can copy people, what are the rights of that copy? Even if it is a real copy, does this human being have the same rights as the person from whom it is copied? It is precisely this aspect that really interests me. If you make a copy and this copy can develop itself as a unit, is it still human? And what makes us human? Do we need a body to be human? Do we need tactile sensations to be human? We – the dramaturges (Madelon Kooijman and Niels Nuijten) and I – have been investigating all these questions in Upload for two years. We collected a lot of material and wrote the libretto from this material.

And how are these ideas implemented visually and musically in Upload?

First of all they are very much implemented in the visual language of the opera. There are two timelines in the opera. One timeline is the now where we meet the upload. The father figure in the opera which is now a digital version and we meet his daughter. It turns out that they were very close but his daughter never knew that her father was having himself uploaded which leads to great conflict.

The other story is a back story were we go back to Switzerland were the father will have himself uploaded and this clinic is a laboratorium like space were also the musicians of Musikfabrik will play a role. The ensemble is positioned on stage. They are in this clinic and there’s a moment in one of the scenes were the sounds of the voice of the singer are being recorded because the upload needs to have a voice. There’s a scientist recording his voice asking him to do vowels and consonants and this is recorded live by one of the musicians and used again in the composition. So there’s a real time electronic layer that’s being developed. I play a lot with the sound of the ensemble, the sound of the instruments, extended in the electronics. You could say that this is a way of looking at a digital copy, a digital alter ego of the acoustic sounds of the instruments. A theme that has always has fascinated me. And certainly in Upload I use it a lot. You could say it’s an “uploaded” version of the ensemble sound that they are confronted with that comes from within, from their own sound and they have to relate to that.

Can you tell us a bit more about the technique used?

The way we want to do the upload is that a singer Roderick Williams does the upload himself live on stage. So we are now developing a technology where we have a series of cameras that film the singer, the singer’s face and body, which is then transferred to the projection screens with very low latency. So we see a digital version of him playing almost like a puppeteer. And he sings live and synchronized with the upload. The upload in turn interacts with the ensemble, with the music and with the daughter. And also the other way around. The daughter can actually influence the space of the upload. When she passes through it with her hand, you can see how the pixels of his body move. When she passes the screen, you can see how the upload reacts to her person. So, it is very much an entity that is part of the production, the physical part of the stage.