Christopher Bernard reviews Cal Performances’ Blank Out, an opera by Michel van der Aa

Miah Persson and Roderick Williams in Blank Out (photo courtesy of Michel van der Aa)

The Trauma of Memory

Blank Out

Cal Performances


How many of us have ever been caught in a lie? Or caught others in a lie? Or caught ourselves in a lie – to ourselves?

It’s likely few can say, to any of these questions, “Not me. No. Not ever.”

Though when it comes to a trauma – an accident, a crime, a moment of misjudgment with catastrophic consequences – there may be many who adamantly assert, “No! Not me! Not ever!”

Blank Out, a compelling chamber opera by the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa, who conceived, directed and developed its libretto, probed these and related matters in a violently imaginative way – enigmatic at first, sometimes mystifying, but in the end deeply moving – at a performance I saw at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on a recent April evening.

A work that addresses the psyche’s dialectics of reality and denial in the aftermath of loss, it bracingly incorporates film, music and live action to examine the darker corners of authenticity. In the opening act of what amounts to a three-act drama played without pause, a beautiful young woman (played by Sweden’s celebrated Mozart soprano Miah Persson) takes the stage to sing, in fragments of sometimes surreal verse, of an event long ago at her seaside home – an event she must relive over and again, without end or resolution, in which her young son disobeyed her orders not to go out further in the water than “up to his belly button,” and drowned.

A screen projects at first one, then two images of her as she sings in duet, then in trio with herself. She unwinds a bit of narrow cloth from a spool. She walks to a table at the edge of the stage and manipulates a dollhouse-sized cottage and a fragment of its neighborhood in front of a camera. The image abruptly appears onscreen and she walks and sings before it, creating a curiously uncanny sensation, seeing her blur and blend in with the toy home; memory, fantasy, childhood dream and present-day illusion, enwrapped in a single embodiment.

But there is something off; this is not just an elegy for a lost child, though at one point the woman stops singing and speaks directly to the audience. The lovingly infatuated young mother describes the special joys and oddities of her boy – his games, his little dramas and comedies, his pretending his beach blanket was a flying carpet held to earth by little piles of stones at its corners – with a transparent pleasure that seems to preclude mourning or lament. The lack of tears is both moving and strange. She describes their last evening together, when the television set caught fire and while it was being repaired, they drove in their VW beetle to a nearby eatery for a pizza (his very first).

The screen begins fluctuating between images of the dollhouse cottage and of the real home it is based on, isolated at the far edge of a field and toward which the camera moves as on an angel’s-eye drone. The woman becomes increasingly abstract as images of the boy are seen distantly, just visible turning a corner of the house, when the camera cuts to a close up and the “boy” suddenly dominates the screen – no boy now but a middle-aged man.

The screen projection changes with equal drama: the 3D goggles I was given in the lobby now prove their worth as the film goes three-dimensional, and a dialectical drama between stage and screen – the screen seeming to become an extension of the stage, the stage an extension of the screen – incorporates the drama we are seeing: two fantasies become two realities, two realities two wishful dreams.

The boy’s dream is of what might have been against the overwhelming guilt of reality on that day decades ago: it was not the boy who drowned, but his mother who drowned saving him.

The second act is commanded by the exceptional singing of Roderick Williams as he enacts a dream of loss and remembrance while his young mother fades in and out, sometimes one, sometimes multiple, always alone, on the stage infinitely far away from him: the screen is a wall between them, built of reality and fantasy, of light and stones. He becomes the young boy, playing his carefree games, teasing his mother, tossing melodies back and forth with her, then in anguish remembering his one misstep that led to a loss that cannot be repealed.

The third act is a transcendent blending of the 3D film, the stage, the dollhouse cottage, the actual home and its memories, the music (now combining a chorus with the continuing sampler and electronic accompaniments to the singing), and even the VW beetle, symbol, or perhaps a better word is incarnation of the insouciant joys and silliness of childhood, the happy discovery of pizza, the nightly child’s baths, the boy’s favorite game of jumping from chair to chair in the living room (because touching the “lava-covered” floor would mean instant death), the funny episode with the hot pebbles he once swallowed  because he wanted to “taste their heat,” the endless non-tragedies, the exuberant follies, and the one endless tragedy that ended childhood in a rage of flying stones and wrecked car and a storm of autumn leaves and blinding light beneath the silence of the sea.

The choral additions were sung by the Nederlands Kamerkoor. The libretto includes fragments from the writings of the South African poet Ingrid Jonker, who died young of suicide.


Christopher Bernard is a co-editor and founder of Caveat Lector. He is also a novelist, poet and critic as well as essayist. His books include the novels A Spy in the Ruins, Voyage to a Phantom City, and Meditations on Love and Catastrophe at The Liars’ Café, and the poetry collections Chien Lunatique, The Rose Shipwreck, and the award-winning The Socialist’s Garden of Verses, as well as collections of short fiction In the American Night and Dangerous Stories for Boys. His children’s stories If You Ride a Crooked Trolley . . . and The Judgment of Biestia, the opening stories of the Otherwise series, will be published later in 2023.