You don’t have to be able to understand something to enjoy it, and often it is the art that appears to make the least sense that provides the most enjoyment for the viewer or listener. But some pieces of art are more challenging than others, such as Tomorrow in a Year, Danish company Hotel Pro Forma’s opera that features music by The Knife featuring Mt. Sims and Planningtorock, and a plot that centres on Darwin’s groundbreaking book On the Origin of the Species.
The piece, which was staged for two nights at the Cork Opera House during the city’s Midsummer Festival in June, is billed as a contemporary opera and features modern dance and electronic music, brought together to share Darwin’s story.
For me, the draw was the music, particularly ‘The Colouring of Pigeons’, which soundtracks one section of the opera and was released in early 2009. For the most part, the musical element of Tomorrow in a Year was of the ambient sort – but listen closely and you could hear strange industrial noises, fizzing feedback and clanking drums that represented the descent of natural life.
Meanwhile, the operatic vocals of mezzo-soprano Kristina Wahlin were as piercing as the bright-red dress she wore on stage. She acted as the ‘narrator’ while Laerke Winther provided the other female vocals – less operatic but still sweet, and Jonathan Johansson, who plays the cardiganed Darwin, had a youthful charm to his style.
The six dancers – who, unlike the singers mentioned above, remained mute – moved about the stage, sometimes in pairs or groups, other times alone. All costumed in different styles, from Oriental-psychedelic to all-white and functional, they represent different elements of the physical world.
Their movements reflect the evolution that Darwin discovered, and in turn evolved as the opera moves on. Their repetitiveness is quite hypnotic, and with some moves seeming a little like they were stolen from breakdancers on the Brooklyn streets in the 80s. Like cells, they mutated and changed, at times interacting with others but often fascinated by what they themselves were capable of doing.
Tomorrow in a Year begins to make most sense after you have watched it; after you’ve had time to reflect on what each part means, what each character is saying, what is being represented on stage.
Like Pollock’s paint splatters or Rothko’s giant coloured blocks, appreciating the piece is down to what you make of it. Your understanding of the basic plot can lead you on to investigating what other elements mean. What, for example, did the surfboard that appeared twice on stage stand for – Darwin diving into the natural world; Darwin’s interaction with the ocean? How did the green laser stand for nature, and what did the shapes it made suggest?
When you’re not an opera buff and when contemporary dance is not your forte, it can be easy to feel, well, a bit stupid watching something like this – like you’re missing out on a trick or are searching for a hook to help you understand what’s going on. Tomorrow in a Year is challenging because it doesn’t at first appear to have a straight narrative or plot, although it is divided into two parts – the first an exploratory phase and the second the synthesis of what has been learned. But it is enjoyable to be challenged by a performance like this, and the show is a visual feast, with the natural world represented in a way that would have been unthinkable in Darwin’s time.
Is it an easy watch? No. And it’s not the show to go to if you’re expecting a live Knife performance. Instead, what you get is an overwhelmingly scientific exploration of Darwin’s experiences, with only one emotional section – Annie’s Box, about the death of Darwin’s daughter – soundtracked by the Knife’s almost mathematical electronic sounds and manipulated field recordings. But when you find out more about the music, you discover that what seems flat and obscure has remarkable meaning, like a section of industrial feedback that was inspired by the way some birds learn to sing melody.
There’s life here, but certainly not how we know it, and it’s the musical representation of Darwin’s exploration of life that was for me the most intriguing part of Tomorrow in a Year. Though not an easy watch, this opera leaves the audience with more than a little food for thought.