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A masterly weaving of music, film and motion-capture technology” – New York Times
A production that everyone must see” – Parool
★★★★★ “Highly original […] Fantastic music” – NRC
★★★★★ “Unimaginably stunning beauty” – Trouw
★★★★★ “I have seldom experienced opera more intimately” – Bachtrack

What if our minds could live forever? Recent advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience mean that we will soon be able to map our memories and experiences, and to use these data to build a digital consciousness identical with our own. These ‘whole brain emulations’ will be able to carry on indefinitely after our deaths: a way of virtual resurrection. But where do our identities really reside? In our minds, our bodies, or our relationships? And how far do the data of our lives determine our fate?

Upload tells the story of a daughter and her father who, when confronted by his inevitable death, has his thoughts and memories “uploaded” to achieve an eternal digital consciousness. The deeply emotional work poses age-old philosophical questions—about fate, identity, the cost of immortality, and the ethics of technological advancement—that take on new significance against a backdrop of present-day and near-future technologies.

Upload is set across two timelines: in flashbacks, a film projected onstage documents the origins and practicalities of the “uploading” procedure. In the present day, live motion-captured projections represent the father’s digital avatar, which interacts with the daughter in real-time as she copes with her loss and is forced to make difficult decisions about her father’s future existence.

Upload is commissioned by Dutch National Opera, Opera Cologne, Park Avenue Armory New York, Bregenzer Festspiele, doubleA foundation, and Ensemble Musikfabrik.

In November 2022, Upload won in the Best Digital Opera category at the International Opera Awards held in Madrid. Begun as part of the Dutch National Opera’s ‘Opera Forward’ festival, the opera’s live premiere had to be postponed due to the Covid pandemic, but a film version was put together and made available soon after. It was awarded the Best Digital Opera prize by a jury of international opera professionals, headed by the editor of Britain’s Opera magazine. The film version of the opera can be viewed on Medici tv, Marquee tv, and Takt1.

photo: Marco Borggreve

Cast, stage
Julia Bullock – daughter
Roderick Williams – father
Ensemble MusikFabrik, cond. Otto Tausk

Cast, film
Katja Herbers
Ashley Zukerman
Esther Mugambi
Samuel West
Claron McFadden
David Eeles
Tessa Stephenson

Extras: Mimmie Idenburg, Hank Botwinik, Sylvia van der Meis-Strauss, Stephane Fructus, Dorien Cudogham, Annelein Greveling, Tamara Friedman, Yannick Hulsebosch

Team
Michel van der Aa – Composer, director, libretto
Otto Tausk – Musical director
Theun Mosk – Scenography & light
Elske van Buuren – costume design
Madelon Kooijman, Niels Nuijten – Dramaturges

Joost Rietdijk – Director of Photography
Darien Brito – Motion capture and real-time graphics
Tom Gelissen – Sounddesign
Simon Hendry – Play-out operator
Julius Horsthuis – VFX Supervisor & Fractal Artist

Djoere de Jong – Production Manager
Siemen van der Werf – Technical director
Rosita Wouda (doubleA foundation) – Financial director

Trailer

Reviews

A masterly weaving of music, film and motion-capture technology

[…]the finest genre fiction has always examined humanity through allegory. So, too, does van der Aa’s spare yet richly complicated work, which is preoccupied less with futuristic speculation than timeless matters of the heart and mind, whether corporeal or in the cloud.

“Upload” is the work of an artist in absolute command of his toolkit, employing a restraint that makes for smooth shifts between acoustic and electric, live performance and film. Most important, van der Aa — who not only composed “Upload,” but also wrote the libretto, staged it and directed a film version streaming on medici.tv — tightly binds technology and dramaturgy. No deployment of theatrical magic is extraneous. Its transparent presence even enhances the drama, such as when the Father, at one end of the stage, sings into motion-capture cameras while the Daughter interacts with his digital avatar mere feet away in a paradox of proximity and unbridgeable distance.

Occasionally, the spoken films overlap with live performance. Williams, in one moment, is shown singing words like “sheep” and “ship” into a machine to teach it the contours of his speech. But otherwise the singing is limited to the Father and Daughter’s scenes together; van der Aa’s musical writing for their exchanges follows the natural rhythms of the English language. But in their monologues, melodies take flight: long, lyrical lines — lushly delivered by Bullock with rending emotion — that are amplified, complicated and contradicted by orchestral undercurrents.

The parallel stories arrive at parallel endings: the past, the night before the Father’s upload, and the present, the night before his likely termination. In a stunning coup de théâtre, a white curtain springs out, suspended over the audience. It’s a mysterious final scene, but not one that requires any answers. Regardless of what happens next, someone will be forced to live with the pain of loss. And no technology, it seems, can spare us that fundamentally human experience.

—  New York Times (Critic’s Pick), Joshua Barone, 3 October 2021

★★★★★ Refinement and technology reach new heights in ‘Upload’

[…] the layered interaction between live action and film – respectively, the intimate father-daughter story playing out on the stage and a super-HD pseudo-documentary about the uploading process – is what makes Upload highly original, essayistic musical drama.

In Upload, form and content converge completely, taking refinement and technology together to new heights. Moreover, Van der Aa has delivered fantastic music. Lyrical vocal lines, grainy electronics, tinkling percussion, grooving or fanning out into cosmic soundscapes; in a chameleon-esque collage, superbly rendered by Ensemble Musikfabrik, he creates the right mood again and again.

Bullock and Williams are terrific. With a surfeit of visual and musical brilliance, the story carries one along to an end that is left open as the father puts his fate in his daughter’s hands.

‘You can live forever – you just have to die first.’ The upload clinic’s breezy, mildly ironic director (Ashley Zukerman, with a dash of Hugh Grant) gives the documentary a wholly different tone from the onstage action. The contrast is exhilarating. Talking heads (including actor Katja Herbers as a psychologist) tell the viewer about the uploading process, including some clever details like a ‘memory anchor’ to alleviate the trauma of losing the sense of touch.

Theun Mosk’s stunning set is highly effective in its simplicity; a few screens and a sophisticated lighting plan create spaces and gradually incorporate the high-definition film world. The revelation that baritone Williams sings at the edge of the stage in front of a motion-capture camera is only the first of a series of visual treats. Although the ending is left open, the closing sequence, in which a giant film screen stretches over the hall and father and daughter seem to come together in their final moment right above our heads, is an astoundingly beautiful one.

— NRC, Joep Stapel, 4 October 2021

★★★★★ Unimaginably stunning beauty

Van der Aa has written another brilliant opera: about and for eternity.

For years, Michel van der Aa has been concerned with mortality and what happens with our memories and dreams after death. How could memories make an eternal afterlife more pleasant? The new opera by Van der Aa (51), in which this intriguing and emotionally charged theme appears once more, is one of an unimaginably stunning beauty.

Despite the futuristic trappings, this idea of ending a fully lived life is strikingly topical, and after a long period of not being able to touch each other, the idea of a purely digital version of ourselves is also highly recognisable.
As in his earlier works, Van der Aa, who has for the first time also written an original libretto, does a virtuoso job of mixing images on film with the live action on the stage. Live music, fantastically played by Ensemble Musikfabrik conducted by Otto Tausk, is just as inimitably varied and mixed with music on tape and with electronics. Sometimes it is unclear whether the sound is coming directly from onstage or is on tape. Something new this time is that the father, live on the stage, is projected onto large screens in the form of an avatar via live motion-capture technology.
On these large screens there are also sumptuous film images of the Zonnestraal (‘ray of sunshine’) sanatorium in leafy Hilversum, head office of the company that provides the uploads, with actor Katja Herbers as a coldly rational scientist. The documentary fragments showing when the music stops completely are authentic Van der Aa elements, and usually provide some comic relief […]

The music itself is vintage Van der Aa. The work begins with pairs of words sung a cappella, which are gradually stacked, ending in an immediately recognisable Van der Aa chord. Also typical Van der Aa are the repeated notes playing restlessly in the strings, with underneath them creaking and scratching. The dry crack of a snapping twig is there as well, of course. But the lyrical Van der Aa is more lyrical than ever. This is where you are now is a beautiful aria for the Daughter, sung magnificently and movingly by Julia Bullock.

Roderick Williams (Father) has been a fixture of the Van der Aa stable for years, and what Van der Aa has written for his voice fits it like a glove. As father and daughter sing a quasi-duet at the end, Van der Aa the dramatist reveals the spectacular coup de théâtre he has had up his sleeve. On an enormous screen pulled into the hall from the stage, over the theatre’s ceiling and all the way back behind the second balcony, the two faces are projected. The characters are so close it takes your breath away. They dream, as the a cappella words from the beginning return. And then they are gone, and what remains is just an empty cloud. Wow!

— Trouw, Peter van der Lint, 3 October 2021

A must-see production

What is especially clever is that underneath all the futurism Van der Aa is telling a terribly basic story about love and death – the classic ingredients for an opera. After his wife’s death, a father (a role sung wonderfully by baritone Roderick Williams) chooses to have himself uploaded and live on forever as a digital avatar. The problem is that he hasn’t informed his daughter (a brilliant role for soprano Julia Bullock) of his choice.

The music is typically Van der Aa. Often hectic, nimble, polyphonic and agitated, sometimes with crackling electronic sounds or cute retro arpeggios from a modular analogue synthesizer, it fades away at the emotional climax to make way for an unbelievably lovely and deeply moving aria, This Is Where You Are Now, sung marvellously by Julia Bullock. The harmonies on the Hammond organ that makes its appearance at the end are anything but to be sneered at.

In a nutshell, Upload is a production that everyone must see.

— Parool, Erik Voermans, 2 October 2021

Opera Upload a success at the Bregenz Festival

The strength of Upload is the perfect interplay of its various disciplines. The interaction of the images on the screen and the singers on the stage, the interplay between analogue and digital music, the transition from singing to the delicate sounds of the ensemble are so successful that the individual elements are no longer recognizable as such. […]

A musical arc of tension runs from the first to the last minute, which is due not only to the masterful presentation, but also to the composition. The musicians provided an evening of operatic suspense for the audience, who expressed their enthusiasm with long applause and shouts of bravo.
– Austrian Press Agency

An opera opens up new spaces

Vivid images and multi-layered, with gripping music and two strong voices […] Using different media, the Dutch director and composer creates a perfectly coordinated total work that arouses emotions and opens the mind. With all the technology that is used here, the focus is on the story of father and daughter […]
In the dialogues and monologues, the audience feels the relationship between the two and the character of the father – his doubts, his depression, even though he was a humorous person. The daughter’s longing for her father is heart-breaking. In a touching scene, soprano Julia Bullock opens the space to the whole universe: in a landscape that is nowhere, her father is now there. The visuals and the singing open eyes, ears and heart. Very beautiful! […]
The Ensemble Musikfabrik, directed by Otto Tausk, creates worlds both furiously dramatic and warmly tender. The live music is a duet with electronic sounds so perfectly prepared that the boundaries are blurred. In particular, the performance of the singers ensures highpoints.
– Neue Vorarlberger Tageszeitung

Successful premiere at the Bregenz Festival

The brain is the last analogue device in a digital world”, says one of the characters in the film opera Upload, which had its successful premiere at the Bregenz Festival. The Dutch composer and multidisciplinary artist Michel van der Aa plays out the idea of self-digitisation with all its consequences. […]
Musically, van der Aa also works characteristically with an interlacing of analogue and digital sounds, employing electronic alienation and playback. Driven, sometimes minimalist-repetitive passages that accompany the argument between father and daughter shift with calmer sounds towards almost meditative pictorial landscapes.
The plot also gets an operatic twist: the father realises that the trauma with which he suffered continues to torment him after the upload. Desperate, he asks his daughter to delete him – a mighty decision she does not want to take. For the grief and pain of the father and the dilemma of the daughter Van der Aa finds poignant moments that are wonderfully delivered by the two vocal soloists.
Michel van der Aa leaves the drama’s outcome open. What decision the daughter makes is not known. Maybe one day there will be a sequel? In any case, we want this work to survive, with a life on many stages and beyond the upload of its online version, likely developed because of the Corona crisis.
– Südkurier

Important questions and encouraged further thinking

“Upload” addressed existential questions about the physical and mental power of life with a lot of technology, film art, live and electronic music. The focus was on the emotionally charged soprano Julia Bullock and the expressive baritone Roderick Williams. The underlying innovative and elaborate technology had a pleasantly modest effect within the artistic process.

The composer, librettist and director bundled this diversity into a meaningful artistic whole. The plot is told quickly, the abysses and the resulting questions open up within the context of the story. Michel van der Aa tells the story in his film opera on two levels. On the one hand there is the encounter between the father and the daughter. On the other hand, the process of uploading is explained in documentary form in the form of video recordings. First, these feeds stimulated the course of action. The striking pragmatics and logic of the digitization and upload specialist gave food for thought and showed humor.

Michel van der Aa composed dense music for the daughter and the father, which lived mainly through the good combination of real, composed passages and electronic sounds. Julia Bullock and Roderick Williams embodied their roles with a large stage presence and excellent vocals. The musicians of the Ensemble Filmfabrik under the direction of Otto Tausk played out the densely set textures with virtuosity. In particular, the psychological interpretation of the daughter, impulsively defending herself against her father’s upload, and the father’s replica were modeled succinctly. Due to the tight movement patterns, dominant tone repetitions and the distinctive use of percussion, the anxiety took up a lot of space and increased the tension. Michel van der Aa asked important questions in his film opera “Upload” and encouraged further thinking
– kulturzeitschrift, Silvia Thurner

★★★★★ I have seldom experienced opera more intimately

Mit seinem von ihm selbst geschriebenen Libretto zwingt van der Aa das Publikum, sich mit der zukünftigen Möglichkeit, ewiges Lebens mittels AGI zu gewinnen, auseinanderzusetzen. Und das gelingt ihm und seinem künstlerischen Team auf beängstigend-beeindruckende Weise.

Mittels dreier beweglicher Glasschirme, die als Leinwände fungieren (Dekor und Beleuchtung: Theun Mosk) werden die vorab aufgenommenen Filmbilder mit in den Hauptrollen spielenden Katja Herbers als einfühlsame Psychiaterin und Ashley Zukerman als enthusiasmierendem Direktor des Upload-Instituts immer wieder gebrochen oder verdoppelt (Bildregie: Joost Rietdijk). Dadurch bekommen die nahezu perfekt wiedergegebenen, an beeindruckenden Schauplätzen aufgenommenen Filmsequenzen unvermeidlich auch eine suggestive Wirkung. Diese wird noch dadurch verstärkt, dass die Sänger mit den Personen im Film Gespräche führen und scheinbar aufeinander reagieren.

Williams singt glücklicherweise nicht nur aus dem Off. Van der Aa verstärkt die Wirkung seines Avatar sehr elegant dadurch, dass man Williams im Bühnenhintergrund vor mehreren Kameras bewegen sieht, womit er den Schaffensprozess dieser modernen technischen Hochleistung gleich mitliefert.

Das von Otto Tausk geleitete Kölner Ensemble Musikfabrik ist ebenfalls auf der Hinterbühne des Amsterdamer Musiktheater präsent. Der agile Tausk muss nicht nur die zwei ausdrucksstarken Sänger durch die anspruchsvolle Partitur leiten, sondern auch gleichzeitig die vorab aufgenommenen Soundfiles in den Gesamtklang integrieren.

Als gegen Ende der Oper die zwei auf einer riesige Leinwand projizierten Sänger sich von oben auf die Zuschauer senken, entsteht eine im wahrsten Sinne erdrückende Nähe zu den beiden liegend singenden Charakteren. Intimer habe ich Oper selten erlebt. Die langsame empfindsame Musik an dieser Stelle ist dieselbe wie am Anfang der Oper. Nun aber, nach 80 Minuten bombenvoller, Fragen aufwerfender Filmopernhandling stellt sich bei denselben Klängen auch ein Gefühl eisiger Kälte ein, ob der verwirrenden Optionen, vor die uns die sich pfeilschnell entwickelnde Technik stellt. Damit erinnert die Leinwand über den Köpfe der Zuschauer an ein weiteres vielsagendes Bild: die unendliche Ferne unseres sich ständig ausbreitenden Sternenhimmels in einem Planetarium.
— Bachtrack, Michael Klier, 3 October 2021

Haunting new film opera

Michel van der Aa’s work explores the intersection of music, film and technology. “Upload,” his haunting new film opera, which had its North American premiere at the Park Avenue Armory on Tuesday, skillfully harnesses all those elements to ask existential questions: What does it really mean to be alive, even as technology increasingly mediates and expands the space between life and death?

Midway through the opera Ms. Bullock sings a gorgeous, meditative aria that tries to picture the Father’s present existence. As she muses, “This is where you are now,” images unfurl around her. They could be undersea reefs, subatomic structures or mathematical fractals—beautiful but uncategorizable to her or to us.

And in the penultimate scene, as the Daughter lies in bed, trying to decide what to do, a huge sheet is lowered over the audience, showing enormous video images of the heads of Father and Daughter on their respective pillows, as if we were at an IMAX movie. Again, they sing the word pairs as they did in the beginning, and the images seem as real as the humans. We aren’t told what the final decision is, but here, the two appear at peace with each other, just as music, film, and technology have coalesced. Are we being lulled into acceptance, as we were visually seduced by those beautiful fractals? Mr. Van der Aa isn’t telling.
— The Wall Street Journal, Heidi Waleson, 24 March 2022

★★★★★ Upload questions the meaning of life... and of opera

Embedded perhaps in the notion that opera is the union of all the performing arts is a suggestion that, at some level, opera should overwhelm. And in 2022, why should it not include film? And live video? And multiple screens? And video advertorials? And distractions to attention and allusions to onscreen identity? Michel van der Aa’s Upload, which opened an eight-night run at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory on 22nd March, posed such aesthetic questions – and deeper existential ones – in a compelling and altogether contemporary new opera.

Bullock, as his skeptical daughter, was wonderfully worried and restrained. She and Williams were the only ones to grace the stage, at least in physical form. Van der Aa’s music – he wrote the story, libretto and score – was on point and effective, delivered with precision by Ensemble Musikfabrik.

With Upload, he has matched the appeal and intrigue into perfect suspense. There’s a quibble in the air that the spoken exposition make it something other than opera, a rather stodgy and rather uninteresting critique. A better argument would be that by using contemporary technology, van der Aa has created life after opera.
— Bachtrack, Kurt Gottschalk, 24 March 2022

A seamless interweaving of opera, film and motion-capture performance

This work would seem to contain more than it possibly could in its 85 minutes: a tutorial-like explanation of how a clinic offers immortality by backing up consciousness to the cloud, one man’s journey through that process and his daughter’s conflicted response as he returns to her — no longer alive but, well, not dead. Throughout, the score shifts among electronic and acoustic sounds, just as the production moves between — and occasionally collides — live performance, prerecorded scenes and motion-capture technology.

But van der Aa, an artist of big swings, operates here as composer, librettist and director with the restraint of a confident master.[…] there is no dazzle in “Upload” that isn’t closely tied to the dramaturgy.

“Upload” has elements of the darkly speculative series “Black Mirror” and the comparatively hopeful “Years and Years,” but its preoccupations are as timeless as they are the finest genre fiction.

We meet them — the baritone Roderick Williams, delicate and ever sympathetic, and the soprano Julia Bullock, silvery at the top of her range, equally at ease in pop directness and lush lyricism — after he has been uploaded, without her knowledge. Their interactions have the naturally rhythmic vocal writing of Janacek or Debussy.
— New York Times (Critic’s Pick), Joshua Barone, 23 March 2022

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Instrumentation

Film opera
2019-2020

1 Soprano
1 Baritone

1 Flute
1 Clarinet in B-flat
1 Trumpet in C
1 Horn in F

1 Keyboard player (Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3*)
1 Percussion player

2 Violins
1 Violas
1 Violoncellos
1 Double bass (low C string)

Soundtrack (Surround, laptop, 1 player)
Film (multiple screens)

*can be high-quality sampled instruments, like Spectrasonics Keyscape and IK Multimedia Hammond B-3X.

Details

Duration

85′

First performance

1 October 2021
Stopera, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Commissioned by

Dutch National Opera, Opera Cologne, Bregenzer Festspiele, MusikFabrik, Park Avenue Armory, doubleA Foundation.

With support of “experimente#digital – eine Kulturinitiative der Aventis Foundation”, Fonds Podiumkunsten, Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst, Gieskes-Strijbis Fonds, Ammodo, and Société Gavigniès.

Publisher

Boosey & Hawkes

Performances

Last performance


22 April 2022

Upload

Julia Bullock, Roderick Williams
Ensemble MusikFabrik, cond. Otto Tausk

Opera Cologne, Cologne, Germany

All performances of Upload

Streaming

29 February 2024

Upload

Julia Bullock, Roderick Williams
Ensemble MusikFabrik, cond. Otto Tausk

Streaming: Medici.tv, Marquee tv, Takt1

News

19 September 2021

Dutch premiere of “Upload”

Five staged performances of Upload are presented by Dutch National Opera this autumn, opening in Amsterdam on 1 October and starring singers Julia Bullock and Roderick Williams. Otto Tausk conducts Ensemble Musikfabrik and the direction of the stage production and immersive film are by the composer....

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25 April 2021

Michel van der Aa’s new film opera “Upload” on stage and screen

“Upload”, the new film opera by Michel van der Aa exploring how life could become eternal in the digital sphere, receives its stage premiere at the Bregenz Festival on 29 July. A film version will be screened by Medici TV and streamed by Dutch National Opera from 19 July. The world stage...

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