The creators of Sun & Sea certainly don't lack ambition. The day-at-the-beach opera installation features 21 tons of sand blanketing the floor of BAM's Fisher Theater and a cast of 30, depicting all of the different types of people you might encounter at the seashore. The audience observes them from the wraparound mezzanine above the stage, entering at different times and leaving whenever they are ready. While the music runs about an hour, it can loop on forever — or at least as long as the performers are willing to warble in their bathing suits.
After initially debuting at National Gallery of Art in Vilnius in 2017, the piece became a hit at the 2019 Venice Biennale. It now plays New York in a time that everyone seems to believe is irrevocably changed from just 18 months ago. But the waves of memory, longing, and anxiety that gently lap against the sands of Sun & Sea are likely to evoke feelings that transcend time.
Much credit goes to composer Lina Lapelytė, whose music embraces us from the moment we step into the theater. A soothing, almost spa-like overture cedes to short snippets of songs from the beachgoers. In Vaiva Grainytė's deceptively simple libretto, they sing about sunscreen and riptides and the dread of returning to work. Deep thoughts emerge from leisure: A man considers the Iranian dates on which he is snacking and the Chinese-manufactured swimsuit he is wearing and asks, "Is this not a parody of the Silk Road?"
An undercurrent of climate change flows throughout, like when two identically dressed sisters express their sadness at dying corals, comparing the Earth's degeneration to their own inevitable mortality. It's not all doom and gloom, though: A gay man sings about the volcanic eruption (perhaps Eyjafjallajökull?) that grounded his plane in London for a couple of days — when he met the love of his life.
While the score moves along continuously, individual motifs implant themselves in the brain, like the glorious "Chanson of Admiration": Undergirded by staccato keyboard and performed beautifully by Nabila Dandara Vieira Santos, it soars like a gull through a cloudless sky. Kalliopi Petrou gives a hilarious performance as a rich mommy bragging about all of the seas her 8-year-old son has swum in. She sings, "What a relief that the Great Barrier Reef / Has a restaurant and hotel!" Her workaholic husband (Vytautas Pastarnokas) looks like a man accustomed to confronting massive Amex statements when he sings, "Exhaustion, exhaustion, exhaustion, exhaustion…"
Harmonies rise and recede like the tides, most memorably in "The Couple's Distance Song," a bittersweet number about anticipating the vacation's end. Rarely has the promise to cook an omelet and buy some gas felt so heart-wrenching.
Director and designer Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė's greatest contribution, the creation of a realistic beachscape within a theater, is also Sun & Sea's greatest pitfall: An old maxim of show business is to never work with children and animals — and this opera has both (the former considerably more disruptive than the latter). A large amount of background chatter collides with the already poor acoustics of the Fisher (not BAM's typical opera house) to render many of the lyrics indecipherable (I only caught about half of them on my first listen). Wisely, BAM ushers are on hand with printed copies of the libretto. The ever-shifting mise-en-scène, without the aid of discernible lighting cues, also makes it difficult to locate soloists. And it is easy to become distracted as the actors move to and from offstage to get hosed down (as if they were taking a dip).
Still, Barzdžiukaitė, Lapelytė, and Grainytė should take pride in pushing the boundaries of both opera and installation art. This challenging yet undeniably enjoyable work feels like a roar back to life for live performance in the heart of Brooklyn, and BAM's facilities managers should remind themselves of that each time they discover a deposit of sand stowed away in a crevice of the Fisher.
Even though it was written in a pre-Covid world, Sun & Sea made me think about my own visits to the water's edge in the last two years, when beaches became a vital public refuge from Covid craziness. It also made me eager to return as I peered down at the operatic beachgoers with my fellow masked audience members (pull the camera back and this strange sight could be the next big exhibit at the Venice Biennale).