Michel van der Aa / Works / 

The Book of Water

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The Book of Water is a chamber music theatre project based upon the novella Man in the Holocene by Swiss author Max Frisch. The work centres around the character of Geiser, a 73-year-old widower, who is dealing with memory loss.

In the adaptation of Frisch’s book by Michel van der Aa and dramaturg Madelon Kooijman extra focus is given to the continuous rain and flooding isolating Geiser in his house. These dangerous weather events link the work to the current topic of climate change. Not only is Geiser’s mind eroding; the landscape is also crumbling away, since the rainstorms raging outside are causing landslides and flooding. The Book of Water is a chillingly beautiful portrait of a man who is surrounded by erosion, nature’s and his own, and who struggles for one last moment of clarity in which to make sense of himself and of civilisation.

The Book of Water was premiered September 2022 at the Biennale Musica Venice.

Cast and team
Narrator/Geiser (live) – Samuel West
Geiser (film) – Timothy West
Corinne (soprano, film) – Mary Bevan

Composition, director, script – Michel van der Aa
Dramaturgy – Madelon Kooijman
Light design – Bart van den Heuvel
Costume design – Judith de Zwart
Director of Photography – Joost Rietdijk nsc
Film producer – Arjen Oosterbaan | Eastbound Films

Technical information
The production is designed with a quick technical set-up and breakdown time in mind. We’re aiming for a set-up on the day of the performance itself, with a pre-rigging on the night before. The stage elements will be built from the ground up, there’s no need to fly parts of the set or screens from the trusses or a fly bar system.
One extra musician is needed to perform the ‘doubleA player’ software from a laptop within the ensemble. doubleA player triggers the electronic soundtrack and starts the film clips. We will provide the full set, including the screens. The presenter is asked to provide a light set-up, sound system, and the video projectors. The technical rider is available upon request.



Typically elegant and thoughtful music theatre work

“The integration of the live and the recorded is immaculate, the cinematography coolly elegant”
— Andrew Clements, 26-09-2022, The Guardian

An ingenious synthesis of the arts

“Timothy West, the doyen of British acting, mimics Geiser, mostly without a word, with the eloquent power of his aged eyes…Ensemble Modern in a string quartet contributes the noble soundtrack from the edge of the stage – with that maximum conviction of the score and its narrative magic, as one knows from the Frankfurters. The music touchingly traces Geiser’s inner life….Suddenly we perceive all of the demented person’s dream worlds, including his smile as if in an unknown language. In his empathy, Michel van der Aa composes music of thunderous fading, cautious and unpretentious, simply truthful. It is fortunate that the Biennale commissioned the work together with the Ensemble Modern and partners in Amsterdam and Cologne, so that the world premiere is guaranteed to live on in the near future.”
— Peter Krausse, 11-2022, Opernwelt

★★★★ A beautifully layered, oppressive storm

Van der Aa’s ‘The Book of Water’ is like a beautifully layered, oppressive storm. Time and again composer, filmmaker, director and librettist Michel van der Aa (1970) surprises with a new layer in his rich oeuvre.

The father on film is the well-known British actor Timothy West. He is mirrored by a younger version of Geiser, played live on stage by West’s son Samuel. He is the narrator of the story, spoken words that have to fit rhythmically as in a melodrama to the nervous music of the four string players of Amsterdam Sinfonietta, supplemented with electronic sounds.

Samuel West succeeded fantastically in this on Friday in the Muziekgebouw. Van der Aa wouldn’t be Van der Aa if the two actors didn’t eventually coincide. Once again it worked perfectly technically. And the string players of Amsterdam Sinfonietta performed miracles.

Soprano Mary Bevan sings with great feeling and a radiant voice. Beautiful is the text about her father, who, according to her, ‘smiles in a foreign language’. As in all of Van der Aa’s music theater works, this too was touching. The mimicry of the old West, present live in the hall on Friday, is not soon to be forgotten.
– Peter van der Lint, 13-11-2022, Trouw

Inventive multimedia theater (best of 2022)

Composer and director Michel van der Aa does it again, also during the premiere at the Teatro Goldoni in Venice. The Book of Water is inventive multimedia theater as he has patented it: a penetrating portrait of a demented man who clings to knowledge, while the water rises.
– NRC, 23-12-2022, Joep Stapel

A refined game with film and theatre [√ critics choice]

The beauty of the images dominates next to the beautiful music by Van der Aa, in a very intimate performance by a string quartet from the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, with electronic amplification (play-out operator Fergus McAlpine) and two beautiful arias, sung on film by soprano Mary Bevan as the daughter.

Director Michel van der Aa plays a refined game with film and theatre. The film images are projected on a transparent wall divided into planes, parts of which are detached and at right angles to the back wall. As a result, the young Geiser, who is also the narrator along with the music, sometimes becomes wedged between the film images of the old Geyser, a very penetrating image.
– Theaterkrant, 11-11-2022, Max Arian

A multimedia spectacle

For all its intricately rendered mesh of live and recorded performances, The Book of Water is at heart a work with one big idea: that, far from being merely a threat, impending natural disasters are an opportunity for personal renewal and reconciliation…Samuel West’s was a virtuoso performance in its own right.

The music was stylistically eclectic but intricately constructed – complex, ever-shifting textures, frequent changes in tempo and dynamics – and frequently augmented by pre-recorded, electronic sound effects which took on a life of their own as they effectively bridged the live performance and the film projection.

Flawlessly put together, with striking visuals and a topical subject, The Book of Water reinvents melodrama after the fashion of a TED Talk for the opera stage.

– South China Morning Post, 28-02-2023, Giorgio Biancorosso


Chamber music theatre

1 Actor (live)
1 Actor (film)
1 Soprano (film)

String quartet

Film, 3 channels
Soundtrack, 2 channels




First Performance

19 September 2022
Teatro Goldoni, Biennale Musica Venice, Venice, Italy

Commissioned by

La Biennale di Venezia, Ensemble Modern, Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, Amsterdam Sinfonietta, November Music, Philharmonie Cologne. Hong Kong Arts Festival, and Tongyeong Festival.

With support of Ammodo, Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, Cultuurfonds Bank Nederlandse Gemeenten, Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung, stichting Reinbert de Leeuw, and Société Gavigniès.


Boosey & Hawkes


Last performance

21 March 2024

The Book of Water (German premiere)

Samuel West, actor. Ensemble Modern. Timothy West, actor (film), Mary Bevan, soprano (film)

Kölner Philharmonie, Cologne, Germany

All performances of The Book of Water


19 July 2024

The Book of Water

Samuel West, actor. Amsterdam Sinfonietta. Timothy West,
actor (film), Mary Bevan, soprano (film)

Streaming: De Salon


11 March 2024

Michel van der Aa’s latest music theatre work The Book of Water will will mark its German premiere on March 21 at the Kölner Philharmonie. The performance stars actor Samuel West and a string quartet from Ensemble Modern, with actor Timothy West and soprano Mary Bevan on film. The Book of Water...

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4 April 2023

Asian tour of The Book of Water

Michel van der Aa’s acclaimed music theatre work The Book of Water will continue its tour around Asia, with two performances in South Korea on 4 and 5 April at the Tongyeong International Music Festival. The multimedia opera had its Asian premiere in February 2023 at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, w...

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4 November 2022

Dutch and Belgian premieres of ‘The Book of Water’

Michel van der Aa’s latest music theatre work The Book of Water will have its Dutch and Belgian premieres on 11 and 12 November. The performance stars actor Samuel West and a string quartet from Amsterdam Sinfonietta, with actor Timothy West and soprano Mary Bevan on film. ‘The Book of Water’ ...

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