Lie back and think of the apocalypse: climate crisis opera Sun & Sea

Drizzle falls from porridge-coloured skies as I hurry from the station to an abandoned gasometer on an industrial estate on the wrong side of Rotterdam. Inside, though, the sun never stops shining. I climb steps to a circular promenade and look down. Below, more than 20 holidaymakers are sunning themselves under cloudless skies. The beach may be fake, the sunlight artificial and the sartorial colour-coding unremittingly pastel, but at least seagulls won’t be dive-bombing to nick anyone’s picnic.

Welcome to Sun & Sea, the opera-performance devised by three women that, ever since it earned Lithuania the Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, has toured Europe and America. It comes to London later this month, trailing rave reviews. The New York Times wrote: “Within a single hour of dangerously gentle melodies, [the work] manages to animate a panoramic cast of characters whose stories coalesce into a portrait of an apocalyptic climate crisis.”

One couple play badminton, two young women make sand sculptures and I find myself fascinated by another lost in her holiday reading, The Ethical Slut, and a man who I can see is never going to make that sudoku puzzle work out. This could resemble the summer holiday you’ll be having in a few weeks; or it could be your idea of the circle of hell Dante dared not imagine.

Sun & Sea is billed as opera but the music is recorded, there is no conductor and the singers mostly sing into discreet headphone mics while reclining on beach towels. The melodies are gentle, wafting through the gasometer’s interior. This is how the world will end, not with a bang but with languorous, hummable siren songs that desensitise us to our fate.

After the Rotterdam performance I tell the three women behind Sun & Sea that I had been dreading the show. I can’t think of more dismal words than “climate change opera”. “Oh no!” says librettist Vaiva Grainytė. “That would be terrible. We never wanted to write a climate change opera. Nor to judge people who are on their holidays. But we did want to think about the paradoxes of how we live.

“We made a rule to avoid certain words like ‘plastic’ in the libretto, because we did not want to be overtly didactic. Nobody likes being preached to.” Instead, she and her collaborators approach their heavy theme with a light touch. The libretto goes so far as to allow the holidaymakers to take perverse pleasure in rubbish-choked oceans. In Chanson of Admiration, for instance, a woman finds submarine beauty amid trash: “emerald-coloured bags, bottles and red bottle-caps – the sea never had so much colour!” The creators are not quite being ironic, just perversely focusing on the upside of environmental apocalypse.

Director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė says that the fundamental idea for Sun & Sea was that the audience would look down on the action. The trio had been struck by a performance of a work at New York’s Guggenheim Museum where audiences lined the ramps and surveyed the scene below. “We wanted to create a dehumanised angle, to look at ourselves as if we are another species,” Grainytė says. “The audience promenades along the gantries to get different perspectives on the action,” adds Barzdžiukaitė.

We wanted to create a dehumanised angle, to look at ourselves as if we are another species

Vaiva Grainytė

But I was queasy at the idea of looking down on the performers as if they were sun seekers in a simulacrum of Torremolinos or Faliraki. The last thing I want to feel like is a smug operagoer looking down his proverbial lorgnette at broiling Eurotrash below. “We aren’t looking down on people in that sense,” counters Lapelytė. “We’re all implicated. Who are we to look down our noses at people who have 10 days holiday in the sun from jobs they hate?”

That generous vision is what made Sun & Sea cut through my fears. I found myself empathising with even the most unappealing of the characters, a wealthy workaholic businessman. “I really don’t feel that I can let myself slow down,” he sings. “Because my colleagues will look down on me. They’ll say I have no strength of will. And I’ll become a loser in my own eyes.”

And then the singalong chorus: “Exhaustion, exhaustion, exhaustion, exhaustion …” His holiday, then, is a welcome temporary death, a sabbath from the 24/7 of work.

His wife, on the next sun lounger, undercuts this, singing as if holidays themselves are laborious, and travel a checklist of meaningless experiences. She sings about how her little boy is eight and a half and already has swum in the Red, White, Black, Aegean and Mediterranean Seas and already visited two of the world’s oceans. “And we’ll visit the remaining ones this year!” she sings in ludicrous hubris.

Sun & Sea was inspired by many things but most poignantly of all by an epiphany Grainytė had during a walk in the Lithuanian woods. “I found a chanterelle in December. It shouldn’t have been possible.” In the opera, this walk is transmuted into the song of a woman who, after moaning about the dogshit in the sand and the vulgar people around her, recalls finding chanterelle mushrooms on a walk just as Grainytė had. “The end of December, how come?” she sings, adding: “As granny liked to say: The end of the world!”

Terrible things have happened in beach-set operas before – Aschenbach expiring unlamented on his Lido deckchair; a small-town mob hunting suspected child killer Peter Grimes – but nothing quite so obliquely harrowing as this. Mortality and apocalypse haunt the holiday scene. A woman mourns her ex, who drowned when he swam too far out on holiday. Another sings of a chance romance that blossomed in an airport when flights were grounded by volcanic ash.

A third sings of crying when she learned that coral is dying, fish are going extinct and bees are falling dead from the sky. But in the next verse, Grainytė’s surreal imagination takes flight and the woman imagines how 3D printing might replace all that we have destroyed. “3D corals never fade away! 3D animals never lose their horns! 3D food doesn’t have a price!” It’s a winningly crazy vision that gets dafter when she imagines that she too might survive her own death. “3D me lives for ever!” she sings.

What is all that about? “The dream that we cling on to that technology can save us,” Grainytė says.

Who are we to look down our noses at people who have 10 days holiday in the sun from jobs they hate?

Lina Lapelytė

Is anything distinctively Lithuanian about Sun & Sea? “Melancholy,” says Lapelytė. The others agree. When the show premiered at a disused multistorey car park in Vilnius, they never suspected that this expression of Lithuanian sadness would become such a successful export and source of patriotic pride. “We expected it would only appear in Lithuania, like our previous collaboration.” That was an operatic indictment of consumerism seen through the perspective of supermarket cashiers, called Have a Good Day!

Sun & Sea includes chance elements, such as kids and dogs and water (a supply off stage allows performers to return to the beach wet, as if they’ve just been for a dip) which all sound like accidents waiting to happen. In Switzerland, a Yorkshire terrier caused particular havoc. Nor are all the singers happy – “they worry about getting sand kicked up by the kids and dogs in their lungs,” says Lapelytė. “They also don’t like to sing while lying down, but they have to.”

The show mutates as it travels the world with a mostly changing cast of singers and extras. At the suggestion of a singer in Rome one of the couples became gay. “We are not about producing an object that endures unchanging through time,” says Lapelytė. “We see ourselves as collaborators with performers. Maybe women work differently from men in that sense.”

Even the sand can look and feel different from venue to venue. For next week’s performance in Reykjavik, for instance, the beach will consist of locally sourced volcanic ash. In Dresden one of the German extras spent the performance building little walls of sand to keep other beachgoers in their zones. What will the extras in London do, the women ask me. Probably not clear up mess from their attack dogs, I suggest.

At the end of the Rotterdam performance, something curious happens. The audience are gently encouraged to leave while the sunbathing singers remain on stage. What happened to curtain calls and applause? This isn’t opera as we have known it. An official, ushering us from gasometer beach back to reality, explains: “You don’t applaud the end of the world.”

Sun & Sea is at the Albany, London, from 23 June to 10 July.