Megalomania in modern China

As Big As The Sky

Arnoud Noordegraaf, Adrian Hornsby,
Ai Weiwei

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Attrackted by the boundless possibilities in modern China, the European architect Sem Aers has been lured into designing a spectacular megastructure in a remote Chinese village. Whilst there, he has a passionate love affair with the famous opera singer Qin Mulan. But just as under the layers of opera make-up and costumes, Mulan turns out be a canny, modern business woman. In a similar way his dream project turns out to be unreal. Mixing traditional Kunqu opera with Wagnerian late romanticism, the Dutch composer Arnoud Noordegraaf evokes the clashes between East and West, tradition and modernity, romance and reality – conflicts which are also expressed through the inventive stage design and film projections by Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous contemporary artist.



When in China, you can dream. Just as the United States were the epitome of endless possibilities in the previous century, these days adventurers spread their wings in the state capitalist playground of the world's fastest growing economy. In China, dreams can come true.

As Big As The Sky, Dutch composer and director Arnoud Noordegraaf's latest multimedia opera, deals with the Chinese dream – and with dreams which collide with reality. The world famous dissident artist Ai Weiwei created the stage design and the accompanying film, this being the first time he's ventured into the realm of music theatre. The libretto is by British writer Adrian Hornsby, whom Noordegraaf collaborated with on A.M., Noordegraaf's music theatre production which was set in Tokyo and featured at the Holland Festival in 2011. The music is performed by Asko|Schönberg. A new production, As Big As The Sky will have its world premiere at the Holland Festival.

Set against the backdrop of China's unprecedented building boom, As Big As The Sky, in the best tradition of the opera genre, also tells the story of a doomed love. In a remote Chinese village, the European architect Sem Aers is working on an outrageous mammoth building project commissioned by the showy self-made millionaire Wu Cai. Having grown up amongst the cows and rice paddies of this village, Wu has returned to build a monument to his own success and the rise of his country as a new superpower. Capturing China's success story of utopian transformation in architecture, Sem has designed the largest dome in the world, which will arch high over the village, completely encompassing it. Putting a small hole in the very top of the roof, the dome will become a gigantic camera obscura, projecting the image of the sky over the village and its surrounding fields.

While the enormous construction is being built at a fast pace, Sem is getting mixed up in talks with different parties. At the European head office of the architectural firm he's working for, they're worried about the negative publicity in the Western press, which is criticising the project for being too ostentatious and accusing the builders of destroying local culture. In turn, Wu is insisting that the original village is bulldozed to be rebuilt as an 'authentic' Chinese village for staging traditional opera performances, in order to attract tourism. The Chinese opera star and national celebrity Qin Mulan has been engaged to perform at the opening of the dome. Dealing with these various conflicting interests, Sem is struggling to determine his position in all this. When Qin Mulan arrives on site for a rehearsal, Sem falls head over heels in love – with her beauty, her voice, and with the traditional Chinese culture which she seems to embody. Yet underneath the chinoiserie which Sem projects onto her, Qin Mulan is a modern media-savvy woman with strong business instincts. 

While Sem and Qin embark on a love affair which soon reaches the public eye, the building project is running into difficulties. An old lady is refusing to leave her home, which is now standing out like a sore thumb in the flattened, excavated building site. With the house fast becoming a symbol of the destructive character of China's building craze, Sem finds himself having to face the uncomfortable truth that to realise his dream project, a high price has been paid.

Ai Weiwei's film projections play an important role in the depiction of the contrast between the two conflicting worlds in which the opera unfolds. The stage design merges seamlessly with projections of architectural plans, video conferences, twitter feeds, television news and documentary footage of the rapidly changing Chinese landscape. Musically, Noordegraaf brings together two contrasting genres, evoking the two conflicting worlds in the opera: traditional Kunqu opera and Wagnerian late Romanticism, both employed in a contemporary fashion. Variously quoting, morphing or contrasting these different styles, Noordegraaf employs his music to convey his multi-layered story of media, power and love. As well as the regular ensemble, which play on the stage, he has also included the Chinese reed instrument the sheng and a whole array of unconventional percussion – including some scaffolding – into his score.

As Big As The Sky AskoSchonberg breed


Arnoud Noordegraaf is a Dutch composer and director. He studied theatre at the Maastricht Theatre School and composition at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. Noordegraaf specialises in the symbiosis of music and visuals. During his time at the conservatory he learned the art of film making by collaborating on many productions for television and the Dutch film academy. Musically, he developed a style that emphasizes a close relation between live music and samples. The combination of these two specialisms has led to compositions which feature a strong dramaturgical influence in his work, from solo to musical theatre production. In 2001, Noordegraaf founded Inexcelsisvideo, an organisation which specialises in producing high quality film and video for the performing arts. Inexcelsisvideo became a film producer for major opera productions such as After Life (opening Holland Festival 2006) and La Commedia (premièred at Holland Festival 2008). Noordegraaf’s aim is to build an autonomous body of work, in which compositions of music and pictures are dealt with in various ways. He has collaborated with artists such as Michel van der Aa, Louis Andriessen, Hal Hartley and Gary Hill; and with many companies, including Dutch National Opera and Asko|Schönberg. Noordegraaf has lectured and given seminars in the Netherlands, England and China. In 2011, the Holland Festival presented the premiere of his film opera A.M. In October 2013 his music theatre production Urwald premiered in Amsterdam.

A cultural figure of international renown, Ai Weiwei is an activist, architect, curator, filmmaker, and China’s most famous artist. He was born in Beijing in 1957, the son of famous dissident writer, poet and painter Ai Qing (1910-1996). Ai Weiwei went to film school to study animation in 1978. From 1981 until 1993, he lived in New York, where he was enduringly influenced by the conceptual art of Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns and started creating his own brand of conceptual art by altering readymades. Having returned to Beijing in 1993, Ai started to diversify into architecture, founding his own architectural agency FAKE in 2003 and creating award winning designs including the Tsai Residence in 2006 and Ordos City in 2008. He was also an artistic consultant on the Beijing Olympic Stadium for 2010, but later distanced himself from the project. In 2012, he designed the Serpentine Pavillion in London's Hyde Park. Some of Ai’s best known works are installations sparking dialogue between the contemporary world and traditional Chinese modes of thought and production. For Sunflower Seeds (2010) at the Tate Modern, he scattered 100 million porcelain ‘seeds’ hand painted by 1,600 Chinese artisans - a commentary on mass consumption. His infamous Coca Cola Vase (1994) is a Han Dynasty urn emblazoned with the ubiquitous soft-drink logo. Ai Weiwei is known for his open criticism of the Chinese government and its policies, initially through a blog on Chinese internet platform Sina Weibo, and later through Twitter. In 2011, Ai was famously detained by the Chinese authorities for months, then released to house arrest.

Adrian Hornsby (1977) is a London-based writer who sees stories as music and time in landscapes. His work is characterised by an intensely melodic use of language, and vivid scenes blown across vast interior spaces. Moods range from the subversively funny to the malevolently beautiful. Hornsby’s writing covers a remarkable compass of forms and interests — including theatre, opera, film, essays and non-fiction books; and ranging in subject from teenage runaways on stony beaches to hydroponic tomatoes in the Middle East. Hornsby has published extensively on China, social impact, global development and the politics of space, and has written four internationally produced plays, a mixed-media opera, a film-with-music, and a host of short stories. His publications include: The Chinese Dream, co-authored with Neville Mars, an award-winning monster-volume anatomising China’s rapid urbanisation and the visions and patterns that drive it; The Good Analyst, which reimagines social value, money, and the power of structured thought. A.M., a love story about sound; and Urwald, a thriller about consciousness. Hornsby’s approach to fiction and non-fiction alike is to combine high-level concepts with acute observation and a mordant wit. He likes to write narratives of ideas that unfold through time, revealing as they go a series of parts pulled from life.

Asko|Schönberg, the leading ensemble for new music from Amsterdam, performs music from the 20th and 21st century. Besides performing music by great, established names such as Andriessen, Gubaidulina, Kagel, Kurtág, Ligeti, Rihm and Stockhausen, it also champions younger composers such as Van der Aa, Padding, Widmann and Zuidam, as well as the newest generation of composers. However the founders of 20th-century music are also amply represented: from Weill to Schönberg and from Stravinsky to Messiaen. The ensemble aims at showing the the versatlity of contemporary music by working together with opera, theatre and dance.

This diverse music-making takes place in Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ and the Concertgebouw both in Amsterdam, during guest appearances in the Holland Festival and Dutch National Opera, and in a variety of concert halls throughout the Netherlands and abroad. Asko|Schönberg regularly appears in festivals in Cologne, Kraków, Paris and elsewhere. Recently the ensemble gave performances in London, Paris, Los Angeles, New York and Jakarta (Indonesia). Younger audiences are also catered for: educative projects for seven-year-olds, composition projects for secondary school students and collaborations with the composition departments of conservatoires. 

Besides the conductor Reinbert de Leeuw and permanent guest conductor Etienne Siebens, Asko|Schönberg regularly works with guest conductors such as Oliver Knussen, Clark Rundell and Bas Wiegers. Performances involve a single-minded group of versatile musicians and soloists from the Netherlands and abroad. Asko|Schönberg is ensemble in residence of Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ.


music, direction, film
Arnoud Noordegraaf
libretto, screenplay
Adrian Hornsby
set design, film
Ai Weiwei
deputy set designer
Bart Visser
art direction
Studio van ’t Hullenaar & Vis
costume design
Merel van ‘t Hullenaar
performed by
Martijn Cornet,
Hē Yí,
Li Yuanwei,
Merlijn Runia,
Zhang Bo, tenor
Cappella Amsterdam, choir ‘Skype scene’
Mirjam Teepe
Daniël Boeke
clarinet/bass clarinet
Remko Edelaar
bassoon/double bassoon
Jan Harshagen
Frank Braafhart
Ger de Zeeuw
Niels Meliefste
Marijke van Kooten
Bernadette Verhagen
Doris Hochscheid
James Oesi
double bass
Wu Wei
Bas Wiegers
Holland Festival, Barooni, Asko|Schönberg
with support by
Fonds Podiumkunsten,
Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst,
Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds,
Fonds voor Hedendaagse Muziek,
Adèle Wickertfonds,
Fontein Tuynhout Fonds,
with thanks to
The Brook Foundation

This performance is made possible with support by