A most extraordinary thing happened last Saturday: Ducky Sherwood and I appeared in the Venice Biennale! We were a (tiny) part of Sun & Sea [Marina], an “opera-performance” by RugilÄ— BarzdžiukaitÄ—, Vaiva GrainytÄ—, and Lina LapelytÄ—, at the Lithuania Pavilion. This work won them the Golden Lion award for Best National Participation. I have been a devoted amateur opera singer for nearly 25 years. I am delighted to join in this performance, in my little comprimario role. It is an unlikely addition to my résumé.

DeLaDucks on the beachHow did this come to pass? Ducky and I find ourselves in Venice (Italy) for a while right now. Part of the attraction is the 58. Biennale di Venezia, which runs from May to November 2019. I thought of the Biennale as only visual art exhibits, but it also includes architecture, cinema, dance, music (new serious art music!), theatre, and historical archives. There are 90 National Pavilions scattered around the city. About six pavilions are closer to the apartment we rented than is the local grocery store. We bought “accreditation” (a season pass, essentially), and we  had been having a great time taking in all the exhibits.

This is the first time either of us have attended a Biennale. We did some reading before getting here, looking for what was hot. “Venice Biennale’s Top Prize Goes to Lithuania“, reported the New York Times. Of course we had to see it.

“Sun and Sea [Marina]” is an opera performed inside an old warehouse-like structure in Venice’s “Arsenale” military base. Sun and Sea beach setThe performers are on a ground-floor set. The audience, on a mezzanine above, peers over railings at the scene. The setting is a beach, the floor covered in sand, the performers in bathing suits, sitting on towels and beach chairs, reading or dozing or chatting or playing badminton. The songs chatter, in English, about each character’s inane or profound feelings, but with an undertow of environmental collapse lurking in their tales. The opera is performed continuously for 8 hours each performance day, though the cycle of 24 songs repeats in about an hour.  The audience files through, rationed to about 20 minutes to allow others to come take a turn.

We arrived last Wednesday afternoon, and found ourselves faced with a 30-minute lineup.Sun and Sea line-up (As it turns out, we were lucky. On Saturday, before the show opened, there was already a line twice that long.) We waited our turn, filed in, and went upstairs. I was enchanted. The music is spare, mostly a synthesizer picking out repeated arpeggios or single notes. The focus moves from character solo to character solo, 24 numbers in all. Occasionally a chorus joins in. There is no plot, just glimpses into the situation of some of the characters, in these unrelated but simultaneous moments in their lives. I took it as a case in point of the power of music. Such bare scoring could rivet the audience so, and win the top prize.

As we entered, we saw a poster: the production was looking for volunteers, of all ages, genders, and ethnicities, to fill out the crowd on the beach. That sounded like fun to an icorrigible chorus singer like me. I checked with a member of their staff. They pointed me to a call to participate in Sun and Sea (Marina) on their web site. I filled out the web form. They said “yes”. I fretted about costume: they were particular about wanting muted colours, and I worried that my bright-green-and-white trunks would be too vivid.

And so, way too early in the fine morning of Saturday last, I made my way to Campo de la Celestia. Ducky, accompanied me, ready to take away clothing which wouldn’t work as costumes and shouldn’t be left backstage. She was happy to support me being happy. Selfie of Jim and Ducky on the beachShe didn’t intend to participate (though I suspect she was at some level interested). But the staff person wrangling comprimarios that morning was determined to fill her beach. As soon as she checked me in, and yes rejected my vivid swim trunks, giving me some from her stash instead, she turned to Ducky and asked, aren’t you volunteering also? Ducky’s reluctant “umm…” was not a stout enough defence, and soon she was in an ecru one-piece bathing suit and sarong. And out we went.

As chorus gigs go, this one was easy. They gave us no blocking, only a premise for improvisation. So we put pretend sunscreen on each other, we chatted, we read, we studied Italian, we snacked, we walked around, we napped. Actually, I only pretended to nap, and instead concentrated on picking up the structure of the opera, and learning the chorus bits. Ducky played “ow I got sunscreen in my eye” brilliantly. I took a dip in the “ocean”, actually a hose on a tap just outside the building. Pro tip: when simulating getting wet from a swim using a hose, be sure to soak every part of your swimwear, otherwise one might look like one had wet oneself. I had booked me, now us, to perform for four hours. The time passed pleasantly. And when it passed, we were ready to get on with our day. We waited for the current solo number to end, we packed up our stuff, and we walked off the beach.

I like to help out casting directors, so I signed up to perform two more times: next Wednesday and next Saturday. I suspect they will be long days for me. On Wednesday, we have Italian class in the morning, then I go directly to the Sun and Sea performance, then I go home for a bit to eat and to put on nice clothes, then we head out to Teatro La Fenice to see a Rossini opera (which had  premiered in Venice a few centuries back). Saturday is Ducky’s birthday, and so we have to head out to an marvellous, in-demand restaurant for a fabulous evening meal to celebrate, after Sun and Sea. The production has sent me scores for three of the chorus numbers, and I will try to learn them, so I can sing along. The scores give three chorus lines, in mostly major or minor triads. I guess I will make myself at home on the thirds. Three pages in total. The principals are miked, and I am not, so there is a limit to how much harm I can do to the ensemble. No word yet on whether Ducky will succumb again.

Does anyone know the equivalent of IMDB for art-performance operas? Maybe I can get an entry there, based on this adventure. And I will have quite the tale to tell my colleagues in the choirs and community opera companies back home.