Michel van der Aa / Works / 

Sunken Garden

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Dark Light

What connects the disappearances of a software engineer and a glamorous young socialite, with a neurotic film-maker of dubious credentials and a gullible patroness of the arts? What is the unfolding crime and who is the criminal? Are their shared dreams of a walled garden between life and death – a place where guilt and grief cannot enter – just dreams, or might such a garden be real? And if so, what is the true price of entry?

Dealing in bright hoax and dark truth, in patronage and manipulation, in the virtual and the bodily, in the isolation of the broadband age, in the primal impulse to cheat mortality at any cost, Sunken garden is an occult-mystery film-opera by Dutch composer and film and stage director Michel van der Aa, and British novelist David Mitchell.

A truly international endeavour, Sunken Garden was a five-way co-production between English National Opera, Toronto Luminato Festival, Opera de Lyon, Holland Festival and London’s Barbican Centre.
Sunken garden is Van der Aa’s fourth work for music theatre. Like its predecessors it employs a distinctive combination of live action and video projections to tell its story, and for the first time includes 3D film.

Sunken garden was given its world premiere by English National Opera on 12 April 2013 at the Barbican Theatre. It was sung by Roderick Williams (baritone), Katherine Manley (soprano), Claron McFadden (soprano) and Jonathan McGovern (baritone). The performance was conducted by André de Ridder.

After these seven performances in London, the opera toured through 2013, 2014 and 2015, with performances at the Holland Festival (June 2013), Opera de Lyon (March 2015), Essen (2017), Amsterdam (2017), and Dallas (2018).

Team & Cast
Toby – Roderick Williams
Zenna – Katherine Manley
Iris Marinus – Claron McFadden
Amber – Kate Miller-Heidke
Simon Vines – Jonathan McGovern

Actors (film) – Harriet Dobby, Alwyne Taylor, Stephen Henry, Caroline Jay, Joanna Bond, Yiftach Mizrahi

Libretto – David Mitchell
Film and stage director – Michel van der Aa
Set & lighting design – Theun Mosk
Stylist – Astrid Schulz
Technical producer – Frank van der Weij

Conductor – André de Ridder
ENO Orchestra (London)
Amsterdam Sinfonietta (Amsterdam)


A fantastical tale to set the ears and eyes popping

A provocative combination of live performance and cinema, fused in subtle and arresting ways[…]the fusion worked here because of the rigor with which Mr. van der Aa assembled all of its parts; the brilliance demonstrated by dozens of collaborators and technical colleagues; and the excellence the singers and actors brought to their tasks, onstage and on screen.
Mr. van der Aa links the musical and cinematic components of “Sunken Garden” deftly and intricately. Subtle hints advancing the mysterious plot are quietly strewn throughout the filmed sequences. Elements in the score link up precisely with details on screen.
Mr. Mitchell’s chatty dialogue unspools naturally, flowing in lyrical strands over bruised harmonies, fidgeting rhythms and patches of haunted stasis, played by a 26-piece orchestra augmented with subtle electronic effects. A filmed scene depicting Amber in a nightclub is set to convincingly kinetic dance music.
The opera’s three live singers, unobtrusively amplified to match their on-screen counterparts, were superb.
[…] unquestionably a bold, rewarding venture that demands consideration.
—New York Times, Steve Smith, 16 April 2013

A remarkable fusion of sound and visuals

…a remarkable fusion of sound and visuals, complete with stunning 3D imagery. Described as a “film opera”, the Sunken Garden certainly stretches the boundaries of the genre.
—Evening Standard

3D film and opera combine to magical effect

I witnessed a truly effective fusion of art forms to create what I can best describe as both an opera and a film, where the whole film-opera is a dramatic conception…Sunken Garden is a genuine multi-media piece of art, embracing 3D cinema drama.
This is a clever as well as complex piece of work, with a fiendishly complicated plot, and Roderick Williams, Katherine Manley and Claron McFadden, the three well-chosen on-stage singers, deliver it with aplomb.
This is real drama and it works dramatically. The mystery is as complex as TV film noir. The spoken interviews work as film and the 3D successfully drew me right in to the sunken garden. Crucially, Sunken Garden works as opera, with van der Aa’s fusion of musical styles matching the fusion of mediums.
—Gramophone, Antony Craig, 18 April 2013

A Gesammstkunstwerk for the age of technology

Sunken Garden is altogether more ambitious, and successfully achieves van der Aa’s dreams of linking different art forms to create a Gesammstkunstwerk for the age of technology. It will divide opinion, however, as anything truly experimental usually does. Much will be made of its technological inventiveness, but don’t be distracted. At heart, ‘Sunken Garden’ is a true opera in the deepest sense. It’s about people and how they communicate, or don’t communicate as the case may be.
Don’t be distracted by the complex plot…Nothing seems to make sense, yet there’s a crazy sense of momentum, such as one finds in dreams…The 3D effects aren’t a gimmick but an intelligent theatrical commentary.

Van der Aa’s Sunken Garden is so different that it would be a miracle if everyone could respond to it in the same way. But perhaps the secret is to enter its strange world on its own terms. In the real world, we communicate in many different ways other than through words alone. We listen to all kinds of verbal and non verbal signals, and we use visual and subconscious images. Sunken Garden is good opera because it transports us into an artist’s vision and makes us engage with our feelings.
— Opera Today, Anne Ozorio, 14 April 2013

Sometimes brilliant and always perplexing

What’s really remarkable about it is the way it all comes together. The first section alternates live, sung action with spoken video clips which are to be part of Toby’s film. The sunken garden itself, filmed at the Eden Project in Cornwall, is in a remarkable 3D, with the “missing” characters holograms within it and the other characters live on the stage, though sometimes interacting (or trying to) with the holograms. It’s a trippy experience, but on occasion a breathtaking one, and the technological aspects have been very firmly welded into the dramatic concept, ensuring that claims of gimmickry are easy to refute.
The score isn’t just a box of tricks: it’s dramatic at times, almost traditional at others (the vocal writing especially), and always carefully attuned to the text. It’s also virtuosically diverse: van der Aa is renowned for his eclecticism, but he really outdoes himself here. Most impressive for me were the sections of music depicting Amber, a rich student with a fondness for clubbing: van der Aa blends elements of dance music into his score with astonishing effectiveness and sincerity.
…a truly remarkable artwork which deserves to be seen and heard, and which merits the attention it’s already received.
—Bachtrack, Paul Kilbey, 13 April 2013

Strikingly effective

Van der Aa has directed the show as well as the often sumptious-looking film sequences. As always he’s done it with immense technical skill, and both his orchestral writing and the electronic soundtrack are strikingly effective.
—The Guardian, Andrew Clements, 14 April 2013

I have seen the future. It works.

Let me tempt fate and proclaim without hesitation that Michel van der Aa’s opera, Sunken Garden, which opened Friday in London, is the first genuine 21st century opera.
Few new operas address the fundamental question of what an 18th century art form is supposed to do in the 21st. Sunken Garden does exactly that. Taking a libretto by fantasy writer David Mitchell, it employs every known device of stage technology and invents several more in order to give the audience as sense of being both there, and simultaneously elsewhere.
The singers, on stage and off, were sensational, Roderick Williams, Claron McFadden and Kate Miller-Heidke above all. André de Ridder conducted, Theun Mosk was the designer, and the show will go on to Lyon, the Holland Festival, Toronto and far further afield. Such has been the word of mouth on this work in progress that no fewer than 40 festival directors flew in to attend the premiere.
If enough of them share my perception that Sunken Garden has cracked the riddle of opera in the 21st century, stand by for more productions that employ its mind-bending, deeply unsettling technology right across the repertoire.
I have seen the future. It works.
—Slipped Disk/Sky news, Norman Lebrecht, 12 April 2013

Powerful arias

A sudden change of mood and pace occurred when McGovern’s character, Simon, sings a lament for his baby, a cot death victim. This was a powerful aria: one of opera’s most traditional ingredients leapt out of all the hypertech and cyberworld frippery and ambushed us completely, no 3D specs required. Yearning and weeping, his suffering was all the more piercing for its control and lyricism. A duet, another standard operatic form, later had a similar power.
—The Observer, Fiona Maddocks, 20 April 2013

Perfect harmony

Every opera director racking their brains to find new directions for the genre would be well advised to programme ‘Sunken Garden’…That all of this comes effortlessly together in perfect harmony is a fitting testimony to Van der Aa’s mastery
—De Trouw, Peter van der Lint, 15 April 2013

Baanbrekend 3D technotheater

Sunken Garden is absoluut state of the art, en meer dan dat. De inzet van de 3D-techniek bijvoorbeeld ontstijgt de gimmick…Baanbrekend 3Dtechnotheater…Van der Aa’s muziek is strak, subtiel en wonderschoon
—De Volkskrant, Frits van der Waa, 15 April 2013

Veel meer dan 3D-filmopera

Een verbluffende symbiose van muziek, film en theater met een vernuftig libretto, dat grote thema’s niet schuwt…In Sunken Garden zijn zonder enige moeite een Faustiaans pact en een Orpheus-achtige reis naar de onderwereld te herkennen en het streven naar onsterfelijkheid roept onwillekeurig Janaceks Véc Makropulos in herinnering op…Muzikaal is Van der Aa enorm gegroeid, en meer dan voorheen combineert hij schijnbaar moeiteloos alle mogelijke genres, met ditmaal ook slimme pop en drum ‘n bass. Van los zand is nergens sprake: orkestklank en de elektronische laag zijn perfect geïntegreerd…Zonder enige twijfel hebben Michel van der Aa en David Mitchell een fascinerende filmopera gemaakt, waarop lastig een etiket te plakken is, die vragen oproept en de toeschouwer tot nadenken dwingt.
—Cultuurpers, Henri Drost, 6 Juni 2013

A Portal to the Souls

Sunken Garden ingeniously layers various media to create an alluring new form. The creators, working together for the first time, are well matched…The inventive and haunting music is acoustic (the orchestra is the excellent Amsterdam Sinfonietta, led by André de Ridder) and electronic, live and prerecorded, classical and pop…Film and music align seamlessly; neither would make sense without the other…When the live singers enter the 3-D garden, the music grows richer and more expansive…The images here are spectacular: the opulent trees and flowers; the quivering holograms of the two captives, Amber and Simon; and the vertical pool through which Zenna enters and departs, which explodes out toward the audience as a shower of droplets or a giant, whirling funnel.
The fine singers—live and on film—adeptly captured the ferocity and pathos in “Sunken Garden.” And the lively actors—especially Caroline Jay, sending up the pretensions of the contemporary art world as Amber’s mother—were completely believable as the witnesses in Toby’s film…technical wizardry enhanced the humanity of the piece rather than overwhelming it.
— Wall Street Journal, Heidi Waleson, 10 June 2013

Totale sinnliche Erfahrung

Mit einem Mal sieht sich der Zuschauer denn umgeben von Menschen, die sich eine am Eingang abgegebene Polaroid-Sonnenbrille aufgesetzt haben, und da das filmische Geschehen auf der Leinwand mehr und mehr eigenartige Unschärfen zeigt, schliesst er sich der Mehrheit an. So blickt er nicht nur in einen Urwald, der Urwald kommt ihm entgegen, die Figuren im Film treten zwischen den Bäumen hervor und vermengen sich mit den Darstellern auf der Bühne, und am Ende beginnt es im Zuschauerraum zu regnen. Das alles verbindet sich zu einer Art totaler sinnlicher Erfahrung, und fast geht vergessen, dass da eine Oper gegeben, also auch noch gesungen wird – nämlich ausgezeichnet, wie Roderick Williams, Katherine Manley und Claron McFadden hören lassen
— Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Peter Hagmann, 11 June 2013

New dimensions of aesthetic experience

The layers of this work are so precisely interlocked, the sound, physical theatre, film and new media so superbly synchronised that everything becomes part of the substance, or the DNA, of the dazzling twilight zone into which we are taken by David Mitchell’s story. Could this be a hint at the future of music theatre? Could this be even “the first authentic 21st-century opera”, in the rhapsodising words of British commentator Norman Lebrecht? Without question, there is nobody else at present who makes more consistent use of the artistic potential inherent in contemporary visual and audio technology as 43-year-old Dutch artist Michel van der Aa. Composer, sound engineer, film maker and director all rolled into one, van der Aa has always endeavoured to make video clips, webcams and laptop animations something more than mere stage setting. Rather than creating immaterial decoration or replacing physical backdrops and buildings with fancy digital tableaus, he is interested in exploring new dimensions of aesthetic experience. […] Nowhere else [in van der Aa’s work] are the layerings and reflections of a multimedia Gesamtkunstwerk constructed in such complex ways than in “Sunken Garden”, and nowhere else has a synaesthetic integration of heterogeneous elements been achieved more convincingly in terms of technique. And yet van der Aa poses nothing but the age-old questions: Who are we? What do we see, hear, feel? Where do we come from? He does this, however, from the perspective of a generation that has grown up on MTV, PCs and the Internet, surrounded by ubiquitous electronic images and sounds. […] It seems there is somebody out there who sees the signs of our times for what they are, informed by artistic exploration. One who observes what he sees and hears without blinders. One who devours everything, only to feed it back into his ongoing research into the musical theatre stage.
—Opernwelt, Albrecht Thiemann 6/2013

Sunken Garden intrigeert mateloos

“Van der Aa stelt via een sprookje vragen over de invloed van techniek op ons leven, en is de eerste operacomponist die écht begrijpt wat er mogelijk is met de kunstvorm. Zo veel technisch vuurwerk, en toch klopt er een hart.” ****
— De Volkskrant, Persis Bekkering 23-10-2017

New dimensions

‘Sunken Garden’ at the Winspear takes opera into new dimensions. In a production first mounted five years ago by English National Opera, the high-res projections, including appearances by several speaking characters, are pretty amazing. Mix-and-match silvery frames and scrims, designed and brilliantly lighted by Theun Mosk, do their part to animate the stage.”
“The musical complexities are brilliantly and incisively coordinated by principal guest conductor Nicole Paiement.”
— Dallas News, Scott Cantrell, 10-03-2018

Stretches Boundaries

“Sunken Garden at The Dallas Opera Stretches Boundaries With Recorded and Live Performances. The innovative composer Michel van der Aa collaborated with novelist David Mitchell, who wrote the libretto, to create a multimedia dramatic performance that is part opera and part film, with 3-D elements telling a story that is part science fiction and part mystery.”
“Librettist David Mitchell is especially adept at implicitly communicating his philosophy with beautiful and mysterious lyrics. Mitchell’s image of dusk as the place between light and dark, life and death was especially powerful.”
“In Sunken Garden, van der Aa moved outside the boundaries of opera to create a fantasy world where the difficult questions of life cannot be escaped. This dense story is filled with symbolism and allegory.”
— Dallas Observer, Monica Smart, 12-03-2018


Documentary by Lucas van Woerkum for NTR Podium.


Film opera

1 baritone
2 sopranos

1 high baritone (film)
1 mezzo-soprano (film)

1 clarinet B-flat
1 bass clarinet
1 trumpet in C
1 trombone

1 vintage keyboard player
1 percussion player

strings (

soundtrack; 4 channels
film; 2D and 3D




First performance

4 June 2013
Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Commissioned by

English National Opera, Barbican Centre, Toronto Luminato Festival, Opéra National de Lyon, Holland Festival. With support of Fonds Podiumkunsten, Ammodo, Societe Gavignies


Boosey & Hawkes


Last performance

17 March 2018

Sunken Garden

Dallas Opera
The Dallas Opera Orchestra. Nicole Paiement, cond.
Roderick Williams, Katherine Manley, Miah Persson

Winspear Opera House, Dallas, U.S.A.

All performances of Sunken Garden


16 October 2017

New semi-staged version of Sunken Garden for Amsterdam and Essen

Sunken Garden On 21 October the NTR ZaterdagMatinee will host the first performance of the semi-staged version of Van der Aa’s fourth opera, Sunken Garden at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. A re-imagining of the work, based on its second version made for Opéra de Lyon in 2015, it will be then ta...

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8 March 2015

Sunken Garden sold out at Opéra de Lyon

Sunken Garden Sunken Garden is about to receive its first French performances at Opéra de Lyon, from 15 to 20 March. However, tickets will be hard to come by – all five shows sold out months ago. The opera has had successful runs already in London and Amsterdam, but this will be the first outing...

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13 September 2013

World premiere Sunken Garden

Sunken Garden Michel van der Aa’s latest opera, Sunken Garden, made a splash on its premiere run at London’s Barbican Theatre. As the first opera to use 3D video it was sure to receive a lot of advance publicity. But the performances themselves attracted international media attention, and polar...

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10 April 2013

Sunken Garden –3D film opera

Sunken Garden We are pleased to announce details of Michel van der Aa’s new opera, Sunken Garden. A truly international endeavour, Sunken Garden will be a five-way co-production between English National Opera, Toronto Luminato Festival, Opera de Lyon, Holland Festival and London’s Barbican ...

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12 March 2012

3D film opera Sunken Garden – advance details released

David Mitchell Advance details have been released of Michel van der Aa’s new opera Sunken Garden. Composed with the novelist David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), the opera is for three singers, chamber ensemble and electronics, and will make use of 2D and 3D film. ...

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