“Sun and Sea” is an opera about people on the beach. For one hour, they all lie splayed out on towels, flipping through novels, picking at sushi, peeling energy bars. They chat, they sleep, they complain, and through it all they bake under the sun, small and vulnerable as their skin browns or reddens or sags.
From above, an audience leans over a railing to observe them, pushing forward to see better, like tourists watching penguins at the zoo. When the director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė started designing the set for “Sun and Sea,” she thought about what insects look like from the perspective of birds flying in the sky. She wanted the bodies onstage to look distant and vague, like something you might crush under your shoe.
For the opera’s run at the Venice Biennale in 2019, the creators of “Sun and Sea” spent weeks searching for a location with the right angle, and finally found an old hangar where the audience could look down from an attic, watching the beach unfold through a hole in the floor. Now, as “Sun and Sea” prepares to come to Arkansas in a U.S. tour co-sponsored by the Momentary, it has found a new location. From October 6-9, the opera will be performed at the Bentonville museum’s Tower; a building which, ironically, was constructed from money made selling beach balls and pretzels to vacationers across America.
A few years ago, as Barzdžiukaitė began to imagine “Sun and Sea,” she received a letter from the composer Lina Lapelytė that said: “On the beach, everyone is equal chunks of meat.” The two had recently collaborated with the writer Vaiva Grainytė on an opera in which a fleet of cashiers sing about their purchases and longings. In the opera, “Have a Good Day!”, the cashiers tower over the audience from a great height, looking down on them as they never could in life. On the beach, they imagined it would be the reverse: vacationers made tiny and frail.
The beach is like a supermarket: a place where no one thinks much, and everyone is reduced to what they consume. Early on in “Sun and Sea,” a woman leans back on a pastel towel, her feet propped up on a beach ball printed with the globe. She squishes down the continents as she rearranges herself on the sand. Around her the beachgoers sing together, soft like a lullaby, “Everything is fine.”
“On the beach, you can see people sip planetary resources as if it was some kind of Pina Colada,” Grainytė said.
“Sun and Sea” is a climate-change opera that feels like a day in the sun. Still singing softly, as if counting sheep, the beachgoers begin to muse about the world’s problems. The water bottles are all empty, the jellyfish are strangled by bright green bags, a volcanic eruption has grounded all the planes. No one moves to do anything. The gestures of the beachgoers are tiny and slow. One pushes back a strand of hair, another rolls to their side. Under the beating sun, it’s difficult to do anything but lie there. As the music slows, every syllable hangs in the air. Even listening feels like trudging through ten yards of sand, running in a dream where you never really move.
The closest thing to a resolution comes when a pair of twins pine for the day when they can use their mother’s 3D printer to make the world anew: printing food, animals, themselves. But of course they never do. They lie there like two planks of wood, singing in unison about the dying coral, the extinct sharks, how it all makes them so sad.
The beach is a place where people go to forget themselves, to do nothing for a day, and in “Sun and Sea” nothing is all they ever do. When the beachgoers finish singing the last notes of the opera, they immediately begin again, repeating the song cycle once more. The audience is welcome to leave or stay. New people trickle in from the exit-door. As much as possible, “Sun and Sea” has no frame: it’s simply there, one long unending day. The vacation drags on until it becomes a permanent way of being, and sunbathing has turned into a life’s work.
Of course the beachgoers feel busy. They have people to complain about, stories to tell. The music becomes most frantic and intense as a woman in a splotched beach dress sings about the horrors of smoked fish, the fleas on the sand. In the self-absorption of her aria, the music becomes dense and cluttered: a handful of sand in your face.
It’s a tremendous relief when she finally rolls over on her towel, and the music slows into a few long choral notes. When the beachgoers sing together, every word, every syllable, is stretched to its limit: there’s a sense that everyone is reaching for everyone else, floating over to the towel beside them on the momentum of one soft note. In these moments, the singers share a community rarely realized at the beach – a place where people are both together and apart, siphoned off from each other by their sunglasses, their games, their towels. As the beachgoers sing together, they cling to what they share as a collective species. And chillingly, what they share is their doomed fate: time passing, their skin burning, every one of them dependent on a planet destined to die.
For a few beats, the beachgoers forget their energy bars and look to the future together, terrifyingly awake to it all. Then a ball bounces across the sand. The mood changes. And they’re just people tanning in the sun.
Get tickets to a performance of “Sun and Sea,” running Oct. 6-9 at the Momentary, $20, here.