Opera Takes A Giant Leap Into The Future

What do you get when Marco Brambilla, Marina Abramovic, and Iris Van Herpen band together to interpret a 1902 opera? We’re all ears—and eyes.

Trippy abstractions, over-the-top graphics, digital video collages of epic proportions—and, lest we forget, the 90-second music video for Kanye West’s “Power,” about which ‘Ye once tweeted, “It’s not a video . . . It’s a moving painting!”—are among the works multimedia artist Marco Brambilla is best known for (his directorial debut, the 1993 film Demolition Man, is arguably not). Demanding and complex, Brambilla’s art works obfuscate and allure, with multi-dimensional compositions that allude to a dystopian world.


Now, the artist is moving from operatic works to, well, actual opera.

[Photo: Marco Brambilla Studio/Opera Vlaanderen]

Brambilla has just created his first set design for French composer Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at Opera Ballet Vlaanderen in Antwerp, Belgium, opening today. The commission, timed to commemorate the centennial of the composer’s death, is a high order—the production was last designed by Robert Wilson in 1997, and before that, Jean Cocteau in 1963—which may be why Brambilla has joined high-profile collaborators, performance artist Marina Abramović and cutting-edge fashion designer Iris Van Herpen, along with choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet.

So, what do you get when you put together the grandmother of performance art, a high-tech couturier, and a video-art visionary together to interpret a 1902 opera? Apparently, viewers will be able to step right inside their collective mind’s eye.

A giant, 23-foot concave mirror, made to “create the impression of being inside a silver eyeball,” according to the press release, will serve as a backdrop to the abstract set. Onto the “iris” of this stage eye, Brambilla will project a surreal composition of imagery, ranging from NASA footage to celestial bodies. Stage props will include monumentally sized crystals on a tilted stage, designed by Abramović, and as for the costumes—we’ve only seen peeks of Van Herpen’s designs, but we’re fully expecting some otherworldly garb.

“The music of Pelléas et Mélisandehas always conjured up images of the cosmos in my head,” said Brambilla, by statement. “Since the text deals with the recurring theme of the eyes and sight, Marina Abramovic’s set design uses seven monolithic crystals and an onstage projection disc as the pupil of a symbolic eye. This becomes a portal into the subconscious where my videos unfold and heighten the tension and drama unfolding onstage.”

“Using celestial bodies as my brushstrokes created such unexpected compositions and shapes,” he adds. “I don’t think the Hubble space telescope imagery has ever been used this way.”


The production premieres today and is slated to travel throughout Luxembourg, Strasbourg, Geneva, and Venice next year.

About the author

Aileen Kwun is a writer based in New York City. She is the author of Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations On a Lifetime in Architecture and Design (Princeton Architectural Press), and was previously a senior editor at Dwell and Surface.