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Coming to L.A.: Climate crisis opera ‘Sun & Sea,’ which wowed the Venice Biennale

The climate crisis opera “Sun & Sea” is performed at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
The climate crisis opera, “Sun & Sea,” performed at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
(Photo: Andrej Vasilenko / from the artists)

“Sun & Sea,” the climate crisis opera that earned the top prize at the 2019 Venice Biennale, is embarking on a U.S. tour that will end in Los Angeles mid-October in a co-presentation by the Hammer Museum, the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The production will be staged at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo, and tickets will go on sale Sept. 17 on MOCA’s website.

The work — directed by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, written by Vaiva Grainytė and scored by Lina Lapelytė, all women representing the Lithuanian pavilion at the biennial — addresses the harsh realities of climate change. It was a hit in Venice, generating hours-long lines for nearly every performance. It remains on a European tour.

In L.A., the Geffen Contemporary will be transformed with up to 20 tons of sand and locally sourced rocks, shells and driftwood. Swimsuit-clad vocalists, as they go about beach activities, will perform the libretto (originally written in Lithuanian) in English. It touches on species extinction, global tourism and the warming Earth, among other ecological concerns. Audience members will watch the performance from a U-shaped balcony, looking down onto the beach as if they were an animal flying overhead.

The tour kicks off at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Sept. 15, then moves to Philadelphia’s Arcadia Exhibitions at Arcadia University as part of the city’s Fringe Festival on Sept. 30. The next stop is the Momentary, a satellite space of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., starting Oct. 6. The public premiere in L.A. is Oct. 14.

Grainytė described the libretto in a statement as “a mosaic of stories, inner monologues, dreams and thoughts, sung in solos and as a chorus by the beachgoers.

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“This ‘soup’ of stories might sound mundane and carefree, however, in this liturgical, poppy and synthetic ocean of songs one can feel an impending threat. The picture of enjoyable holidays belies the consequences of this inertia — planetary resources being extracted as if sipping fizzy piña colada.”

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The L.A. iteration of the production is a passion project among the three leaders of the presenting organizations: the Hammer’s Ann Philbin, CAP UCLA’s Kristy Edmunds and MOCA’s Klaus Biesenbach. Each saw different iterations of the production in Lithuania or Italy, but all were moved, they said.

“It was an incredibly emotional experience,” Philbin said in an interview with Biesenbach and Edmunds. “Everybody, as they walked out, people were crying. It was profound, really profound.”

Added Biesenbach: “It’s about togetherness. It breaks your heart.”

Past presentations of the opera have included community volunteers. They didn’t sing but simply joined the beach activities, improv-style.

In L.A., the community participation element will be filled by members from the choral ensemble Tonality, which Edmunds described as a “BIPOC-forward, social justice professional chorus of Angelenos.”

The opera, Edmunds said, is big, complex and challenging to stage.

“The poetic and aesthetic scale is so profoundly important that you begin a process of trying to move heaven and earth, right then and there, to [make it happen],” she said.

General admission tickets are $25; member presale tickets, $20, will be available Sept. 14-16.

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