Deception, manipulation and mysticism in Michel van der Aa's latest multimedia opera

Sunken Garden

Michel van der Aa, David Mitchell

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What connects the disappearances of a software engineer with a glamour girl and a neurotic filmmaker and a female patron of the arts? What crime is discovered and who is the culprit? And where do those dreams come from, about a walled garden between life and death – a place where guilt and anguish cannot enter? For his fourth work in musical theatre, composer and director Michel van der Aa sought to collaborate with the celebrated English novelist David Mitchell, whose best-sellers include Cloud Atlas. In their multimedia opera utilising 3d film they tell a story which switches between cunning deception and occult truth, between the virtual and the real, between life and death.
Programme book


Tickets for the dress rehearsal on Sunday 2 June are available at a reduced rate, For the other performances, only a limited amount of tickets is available. 


Michel van der Aa
David Mitchell
musical direction
André de Ridder
film, direction
Michel van der Aa
set and lighting design
Theun Mosk
Roderick Williams
Katherine Manley
Claron McFadden
cast film
Kate Miller-Heidke
Jonathan McGovern
Amsterdam Sinfonietta
English National Opera
Toronto Luminato Festival
Opera de Lyon
Holland Festival
Barbican Centre
supported by
Fonds voor Podiumkunsten
Boosey + Hawkes Music Publishers Limited
Brian Galliford (Balthasar Zorn)

Van der Aa ... pushes the boundaries of all his media. This is the Gesamtkunst of the future.

Friancial Times

background information

One of the most distinctive of the younger composers working in Europe today. His ability to fuse music, text and visual images into a totally organic whole sets him apart from nearly all his contemporaries.

The Guardian


On 3 June 2013 Michel van der Aa's new music theatre work Sunken Garden will be performed at the Holland Festival. It's an indication of the international success of Van der Aa, who recently won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, that Sunken Garden had its world premiere in april this year with the English National Opera at the London Barbican. In 2006, Van der Aa's second opera After Life opened the Holland Festival and has since been performed in more than ten countries.

“One of the most distinctive of the younger composers working in Europe today,” is what the British newspaper The Guardian wrote about him. “His ability to fuse music, text and visual images into a totally organic whole sets him apart from nearly all his contemporaries.” Van der Aa is the antithesis of the romantic cliché of the composer working alone in his attic: to make his work as enriched as possible he often combines his music with visual arts or looks for collaborations with artists from other disciplines.

For his fourth music theatre work Van der Aa sought a collaboration with the celebrated English novelist David Mitchell, whose bestsellers include The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) and the epic Cloud Atlas (2004), which was made into a movie last year. The multimedia opera with 3D film Sunken Garden deals in bright hoax and dark truth, patronage and manipulation, the virtual and the bodily, the isolation of the internet age and the primal instinct of man to cheat mortality at any cost.

As with After Life, Van der Aa will direct both the film and on stage. The musical direction is left in the capable hands of the young German conductor André de Ridder, a welcome guest at the Holland Festival whose contributions last year included conducting the successful screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey with live music. The cast, some of whom will only appear on video, includes the sopranos Katherine Manley (Zenna Law), Claron McFadden (Iris Marinus) and Kate Miller-Heidke (Amber Jacquemain) and baritones Roderick Williams (Toby Kramer) and Jonathan McGovern (Simon Vines).

In his librettto, David Mitchell has in his usual manner connected a collection of lives and stories into a compelling composition. What links the disappearances of a software developer and a glamour girl with a neurotic film maker and a patroness of the arts? Are their shared dreams of a walled garden between life and death – a place where guilt and anguish cannot enter – only dreams or could such a garden really exist? If so, what price would you have to pay to enter?


Michel van der Aa (1970) studied musical engineering at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague before embarking on his studies in composition with Diderik Wagenaar, Gilius van Bergeijk and Louis Andriessen. In 2002 he studied film direction at the New York Film Academy and in 2007 he took part in the Lincoln Center Theater Director's Lab, an intensive course in stage direction. His work is characterised by interdisciplinarity and close collaborations with other musicians, including Sol Gabetta, Barbara Hannigan, Janine Jansen and Christianne Stotijn; but also actors and writers, such as Klaus Maria Brandauer and David Mitchell. Van der Aa's music is performed worldwide by renowned ensembles and orchestras, and has featured at many festivals, including the Berliner Festspiele, the Donaueschinger Musiktage, the Huddersfield Festival, the Warsaw Autumn and the Venice Biennale. Van der Aa's works in music theatre have been performed in over ten countries. After life (2006/2009) and The book of disquiet (2008) were restaged a number of times. Not only his operas, but also his works for the concert stage often make use of multiple media, such as the song cycle for mezzo-soprano, orchestra and tape Spaces of blank (2007) and Up-Close for cello, string ensemble and video (2010). In 1999 Van der Aa won the Gaudeamus International Composers Award. His work has also been awarded the Matthijs Vermeulen Award (2004) for the chamber opera One, the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize (2005), the Charlotte Köhler Prize (2005) and the Paul Hindemith Award (2006). In 2013 Van der Aa received the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for Up-Close and the Mauricio Kagel Music Prize for 2013 will be awarded to him  in April. Van der Aa is house composer with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He has also developed strong ties with the Barbican Centre in London.


David Mitchell (1969) is a British writer. He has published five novels, of which Cloud atlas (2004) and The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) are the best known. He lived in Japan for a long time and is married to a Japanese woman. Many of his novels refer to Japan. Currently, Mitchell resides in Ireland. His work is characterised by a large variety of styles and forms with which he intertwines the various storylines, as in his debut novel Ghostwritten (1999), which was awarded the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. His next two novels number9dream (2001) and Cloud Atlas were both shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Cloud Atlas was made into a movie in 2012 by Tom Twyker, starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. Unlike his other novels, Black Swan Green (2006) does not have Mitchell's typical mosaic structure. It tells the semi-autobiographical story of a stammering thirteen year old boy. With The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet Mitchell broke through to a wider audience in the Netherlands The novel tells the story of the artificial island of Deshima, the Dutch free port near Nagasaki, in the period that the Japanese empire was hermetically closed off from the outside world. In 2003 Mitchell was included in Granta magazine's list of Best of Young British Novelists, and in 2007 he appeared on Time Magazine's list of the one hundred most influential people. Mitchell wrote the libretto for Klaas de Vries’ opera Wake, about the fireworks disaster in the dutch town of Enschede, which was premiered in 2010 by the Nationale Reisopera.

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