World’s first fully holographic production, Symphony to a Lost Generation, visits The Apex, Bury St Edmunds. Creator Adam Donen interviewed.
Hundreds of actors and dancers will appear at The Apex alongside the world-renowned Vienna Philharmonic Choir and Lithuanian State Orchestra, except none of them will actually be present on stage. Entertainment writer Wayne Savage talks to composer and director Adam Donen about Symphony to a Lost Generation - billed as the world’s first fully holographic production.
“I grew up in a country that was effectively in a civil war - South Africa in the 1980s,” says Donen. “Technically I suppose my family, supporters of Nelson Mandela’s party, the ANC, were terrorists. I lived in books and art. It made more sense than the rest of life.”
This perhaps explains the theme of his epic production, visiting the Bury St Edmunds venue June 6-8.
Fusing classical music, dance, drama and archival film its performers include “bad boy of ballet” Sergei Polunin, Royal Ballet principal Natalia Osipova and famous Russian soprano Yana Ivanilova among others.
The self-taught musician and pop song writer turned composer, director and writer wanted to create a work that communicated how the First World War isn’t just a greying piece of history in a textbook but a fundamental period in our history that directly affects and shapes our present.
“Equally, there was a time when a symphony was a serious work of art that was an active part of public discourse, that’s what I wanted to share with audiences in the present-day. It was Robert Harder, my music producer - who has worked with people like Herbie Hancock and Brian Eno, among many others - who told me to stop making pop music and ‘do something with my life’ and turn to classical composition,” says Donen.
“(Everybody involved) loves it. The reason I got to work with so many of the world’s greatest performers - in music, dance and acting - was they shared my sense of the importance of taking their work to places outside of where they could usually perform. I’m flattered to say they trusted me to make them at least as good as holograms as they were in real life. The first of my on-screen actors to join the project was Minako Seki, founder of the Seki school of Butoh dance and, to my mind, the world’s greatest living Butoh dancer. That was the genesis of Movement 3 of the symphony and, well, the rest is history.”
Hiss biggest inspiration was Wagner, who believed the job of art was to create something that unified everything the great artists before had done with that which could only be done - whether technologically or otherwise - in one’s present. Musically and visually Donen drew on the artists of the period of the First World War.
“The first movement is fantasy and is in the style of George Melies’ Journey to the Moon, the first fantasy film ever made. Later on I move to realism and later still to the shellshocked horror paintings of Otto Dix, the greatest painter to come out of the First World War. Again, with regular actors on stage, one could never create these terrifying worlds.”
Which brings us to how it all works.
“(You) build a green screen, spend six months testing lighting setups, camera angles, etc. Film actors, dancers and musicians. Build in 3D space. Torture dear Mikael Jaeger Jensen - ex-Framestore, Avatar, Gravity, et al, my visual director - and my VFX supervisor Ivan Sorgente for a year building explosion scenes, impossible appearances and disappearances, 3D objects, etc. Edit on a life-size stage. Rinse and repeat.
“I’m aware this sounds comically simple. It’s not. It’s a bloody nightmare, but the nightmare is in the details.”
There’s not a single live performer. At showtime, stage hands raise the curtains and click play.
“The harder part is the eight hours before, where we’ve got a brilliant team hanging invisible screens, testing synchronisation and a bunch of highly technical things that are well beyond me. It’s a huge technical effort. But we’ve got a great system, with multiple redundancies. It works every time,” Donen assures me.
He agrees the project was a massive, bordering on insane, undertaking. From his point of view, the only consideration was that it was a necessary one.
“If great art is to exist in our time it needs to exist outside of the great capitals, outside of the great opera houses. Great art belongs to everyone - if it’s not to exist for everyone, there’s no point in creating it. This is what I wanted to create.”
Never attempted before, he was well aware of the nature of uncharted waters. It was one of the important reasons why holograms, as a medium, were the ideal way in which to communicate multiple timeframes, different emotions, different movements all on the same platform and to be able to take it out of major capital cities to smaller towns and cities like Bury St Edmunds.
“(Holograms) allow a far larger cast and means I can address the scale and universality of the horror, moving between countries, battles and experiences rather than trying to tell ‘one person’s story’ - typically a man, typically British or American - and pretending it was representative of the universality of suffering. It allows me to create the inside of people’s heads on stage without far less limitation than real actors and with far more immediacy than 3D film.”
They can, he adds, create artistic effects no other form can. They can also travel to places that great performers can’t or won’t, en masse.
“Getting dear Minako Seki, Sergei Polunin, the Vienna Philharmonic Choir and the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra to Bury St Edmunds would likely prove difficult and I didn’t want my work stuck in capital cities with gazillion pound tickets.
“I’ve wanted to work with holograms for two decades. The technology hasn’t been available, or certainly not to people like me, without multi-million pound budgets. I’ve worked with great performers before and backed them to create something worthy of replication night after night. I feel this is what we’ve created.”
Donen admits the costs were very significant in terms of the infrastructure - the projectors, gauzes and so on.
“The important thing for me is that the costs of an individual performance, now that the production is done, is far smaller than getting the Vienna Philharmonic Choir, Sergei Polunin and Natalia Osipova never mind the other 300 performers to Bury St Edmunds. In other words, I was lucky enough to find a way to finance getting great art to non-capital cities and that’s the only bit I care about.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky to have received support from people in different arenas of the arts, especially Bloomsbury Cultural Renaissance producer Jim Murray, who made me his composer-in-residence and my producer Daniel Reynolds, who has an extensive background in finance and was willing to, along with many others, provide the resources and incredible people to realise this work.”
The question Donen’s most asked about Symphony to a Lost Generation is are the holograms like real life.
“The answer is ‘no’. They are different to real life and to 3D film. This is why a ‘holographic Michael Jackson’ isn’t as good as a real one but, I hope, our production is far better as holograms than with real performers. My goal was to do, with holograms, what real life couldn’t do - to make characters and scenes mutate and disappear, to accurately recreate the experience of what (the conflict was like).”
At its broadest, Donen says the symphony moves from the beautiful, innocent, romantic style that preceded the war; through the dissonant nightmarish music that was born of it - and out the other side where he tries to create a new tonal, melodic music fully aware of all that came before but seeks to overcome it.
The traditional symphony has four movements, where the first states the idea and the fourth concludes. He’s added a movement - the first four deal with the world before the war and the war itself and the fifth seeks to find a way to address our present in light of what’s come before.
Movement one is a completely traditional 19th Century sonata in which a young British boy in 1905 dreams of being a great soldier like Hercules or Achilles and collides with the fact the age of heroes has been crushed by the mechanized butchery of the war.
“The second skips between many styles - Russian dance, chorale, pastorale - all of which try to make sense of the world but none of which can, as slaughter piles on slaughter. It depicts the death of these forms and of the idea any one way of writing or thinking could ‘explain the world’.
“Later on, when I show shellshocked soldiers - and shellshock didn’t exist back then, there were only ‘cowards’ - I distort and play with beautiful pieces of music from the past and ‘torture’ them as they try to talk to our present.
“Ultimately the final movement, the one I care most about and of which I’m proudest, for what it’s worth; takes us from the Armistice to 2016 but using a musical language that is completely tonal and melodic - trying to find a way to express our present honestly and beautifully the way that those composers I love, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Mendtner, sought to express the world that preceded the war.
“Most importantly of all, I wanted to write music that was emotional rather than just pettily horrific. I wanted to write something 12-year-olds could feel, not just classical buffs. From my first performances for schools, I think I might just have done this. It’s filled with references, visual and musical, but they’re not necessary for feeling the work - they’re just a bonus.”
Donen hopes audiences will fall in love with music, as he did. He hopes people who’ve never heard a great choir or seen a truly great ballet dancer will fall in love with the things he loves. More importantly, he hopes we’ll think about the world we’re in today, think about the world he depicts and consider in what ways it’s not changed so much at all - in what ways it’s different and in what ways we can avoid the mistakes made in that terrible time.
“This is the work, as you put it, of a madman, but one who takes seriously his inheritance - other madmen, who’ve given me all the works I love. Music and drama is treated today as either entertainment or academia - I want it to be a serious thing that engages with our world in the way it’s uniquely qualified to do. Most of all, I want them to appreciate any art the present can produce belongs to them more than it does to anybody.”