"Opera in the Clouds"
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Sept. 15, 2012
From 1977 until 2003, Karlheinz Stockhausen channelled his torrential creative energies into a seven-part, sci-fi operatic cycle called “Licht,” or “Light.” Each installment is named for a day of the week; in all, the music lasts twenty-nine hours, quite a bit longer than Wagner’s “Ring.” At the time of Stockhausen’s death, in 2007, two of the operas had not yet been staged: “Sonntag” (Sunday), the last to be completed, and “Mittwoch” (Wednesday), written in the mid-nineties. Not the least of the issues hindering a full production of “Mittwoch” was the fact that one scene requires four string players to leave the hall, go to a nearby landing strip, and play for half an hour while flying in helicopters. Opera is difficult enough without having to deal with aviation permits. Many people assumed that the heptalogy, as Stockhausenites call it, would die away with the composer, its lofty aims defeated by megalomania.
Recently, though, “Licht” has found new life. Last year, “Sonntag” had its première, in Cologne, and in August the Birmingham Opera, in England, with help from the cultural arm of the London Olympics, finally conquered the “Mittwoch” challenge. Thus it came to pass that Stockhausen’s vision found fulfillment at a former chemical factory in Digbeth. Heavy rain in the afternoon threatened the aerial segment, but by the time the members of the Elysian Quartet arrived at their helicopters the skies had turned a brilliant blue. It was Stockhausen’s eighty-fourth birthday.
In a question-and-answer session after the helicopter scene—this is the rare opera that calls for a Q. & A. in the score—one of the pilots confessed that he found the whole thing “bonkers.” It wasn’t the first time that Stockhausen had been so diagnosed. Having achieved sufficient renown in the sixties that his face appeared on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper” (top row, between Lenny Bruce and W. C. Fields), he fell into mystical speculation in his later years, adopting the mien of a minor cult leader. Assistants ran around trying to realize his demands, including, it’s said, arranging Christmas lights according to the Fibonacci series. Much of “Licht” is derived from “The Urantia Book,” an early-twentieth-century religious text of obscure provenance, in which Christ is described as an incarnation of the Archangel Michael. The episodes of “Licht” chronicle attachments, conflicts, and reconciliations between Michael and his archetypal companions, Eve and Lucifer.
The plot of “Mittwoch,” such as it is, deals in themes of “love—friendship— cosmic solidarity.” In the first scene, a World Parliament, in the form of an a-cappella chorus, convenes to discuss the problem of love. When the president of the parliament learns that his car is about to be towed—“Licht” has surprising touches of slapstick—he rushes out, and a coloratura soprano takes over. In the second scene, “Orchestra Finalists,” a dozen musicians glide through the air, evoking alien cultures. Then comes the famous “Helicopter String Quartet,” its relation to the “Licht” scheme never quite explained. You get the feeling that Stockhausen simply thought that it would be awesome to have musicians fly in helicopters. The quartet has been performed on its own before, and at its première, in 1995, the composer excitedly narrated the proceedings, as if he were reporting on a NASA launch. In “Michaelion,” the final scene, delegates from around the universe elect a new president, choosing a shortwave-radio operator who somehow emerges from a dancing camel.
Bonkers, quite. But if we were to disqualify composers for pursuing daft ideas we would lose much of the repertory. “Mittwoch,” in a joyously imaginative realization by the director Graham Vick, proved enthralling for much of its six-hour duration. Often, the cosmology seems an excuse for sonic pageantry: spastic instrumental solos, intricately layered choruses, chaotic orchestral swells, rich infusions of electronic timbre. Stockhausen’s gifts as a painter in sound never left him. Only in the final scene does the kookiness of the subject matter become seriously distracting. “I will tune you in like a receiver,” voices sing, “but whether or not you sound clear depends on you.” Roger that.As it turned out, the helicopter escapade, which the audience observed on video screens inside the cavernous Digbeth space, was in some ways the least interesting part of the show. The logistics were expertly handled: under the musical direction of Kathinka Pasveer, Stockhausen’s longtime collaborator, incessant tremolos and glissandos blended neatly with the sound of the rotors. The trouble is that the novelty wears off halfway through; nothing changes, and tedium sets in. The preceding scenes, “World Parliament” and “Orchestra Finalists,” are a different matter. They build to convulsive climaxes—in the one, an ecstatic chorus in the area of E-flat major; in the other, antic solos for trombone and double-bass, both hovering around D-flat. (Stockhausen’s later music, while related in principle to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method, often leans toward tonality.) The musical construction is masterly, and the primary “Licht” motifs have a way of sticking in the mind.
Vick put on what could be described as a high-end psychedelic circus. The small army of performers included not only the Elysian Quartet, an orchestra, and two choruses (Ex Cathedra and London Voices) but also dozens of volunteer actors from the Birmingham area. The production began in darkness, with an extended electronic prelude, heavy on drones, rumbling from the speakers. Then sudden flashes of light revealed enigmatically pretty tableaux: a boy flying a kite; young men clambering up walls; a woman showering with a watering can; another woman opening a box, out of which floated a balloon. In “World Parliament,” the singers of Ex Cathedra were perched on high yellow chairs, their faces painted with national colors. Their performance was a phenomenal feat of musicianship; the climax had a rollicking energy, like modernist gospel.
What I will remember longest, though, is the sublime anarchy of “Orchestra Finalists.” The musicians dangled in ski-lift-like chairs while listeners lay on their backs. On the ground, kids scampered this way and that, paper airplanes were tossed, bewhiskered gentlemen strode about with steam issuing from their top hats. During the trombone solo—heroically executed by Andrew Connington—a children’s wading pool was pushed down the length of the hall on a wheeled platform, a boy splashing inside. When the pool arrived beneath him, Connington plunged in, glissandoing all the while. (Stockhausen doesn’t actually ask for such a thing to happen, but it seemed apt.) You’d think that Connington’s feat couldn’t be upstaged, but Jeremy Watt nearly outdid him with a manically dancing, shouting double-bass solo, at one point falling flat on his back with his instrument on top of him. This was in strict accordance with the score.
Stockhausen intended “Finalists” as an antidote to the chilly routine of musical competitions. Players should project a “personal aura,” he said. Often accused of domineering tendencies, he here liberated his musicians, let them be. The entire work, for all its unaccountable aspects (space does not permit a description of the scene in which the camel defecates seven planets), felt more like a communal exercise than like one man’s egotistical creation. Afterward, the performers mingled with the audience, and “Happy Birthday” was sung to the absent composer, who, one assumes, was listening happily from his home planet.
John Cage, whose centenary is being celebrated around the world this week (a major festival is under way in Washington, D.C., of all places), was a cooler cat than Stockhausen, his zany reputation notwithstanding. If “Mittwoch” is vastly more fun than its Urantian scenario suggests, Cage’s 1987 work “Europeras 1 and 2”—a chance-controlled mélange of arias from sixty-four operas—is an unexpectedly dark and moody thing. “For two hundred years, the Europeans have been sending us their operas,” Cage said of the piece. “Now I’m sending them back.” On the night before “Mittwoch,” I was in Bochum, Germany, for a performance of “Europeras 1 and 2,” at the Ruhrtriennale festival. Heiner Goebbels, the current director of the Ruhrtriennale, staged the work in the cathedral-like Jahrhunderthalle, which once housed a power plant for the local steel industry. The vogue for repurposing industrial-age spaces toward cultural ends, which Bochum pioneered, has been a boon for avant-garde works that are ill-suited to traditional venues; the New York Philharmonic proved as much when it gave gripping rendition of Stockhausen’s “Gruppen,” for three semi-independent orchestras, at the Park Avenue Armory, in June.
In Cage’s scheme, the aria collage of “Europeras” is accompanied by a randomized array of costumes and sets from various periods. Goebbels, working in collaboration with the set designer Klaus Grünberg and the costume designer Florence von Gerkan, produced an ever-changing, at times dazzling spectacle, drawing on theatre archives going back hundreds of years. Baroque phantasmagorias intersected with grand-opera Egyptian vistas and the luminous early-modern visions of Adolphe Appia. Meanwhile, ten gifted singers churned through centuries of repertory, ranging from “Carmen” and “Otello” to such brain-teasing fare as Anton Rubinstein’s “Nero” and Wilhelm Kienzl’s “Der Evangelimann.” For much of the night, the bass Paolo Battaglia was outfitted in full Queen Elizabeth I regalia. The orchestra had parts unrelated to the rest; everyone laughed when, apropos of nothing, a trumpet tootled the “Ride of the Valkyries.” And the supertitles projected several of the cut-up synopses that Cage prepared for the first performances:
She sells his soul to her father with the aim of improving his impaired finances. Even her loving relatives are shocked. They rescue him. He retires. She agrees. Torn, they, in shame, pardon all conspirators. He agrees to marry her. She kills herself. He is chosen the victor.
Yet the comedy of non sequiturs gives way to growing melancholy. Much of the time, the voices and instruments make an eerie murmur, like that of a subdued crowd. At the Jahrhunderthalle, a feeling of loneliness arose from the disconnected meanderings of the performers, even as the resonance of the space made them all dreamily audible. This was the Gesamtkunstwerk dismantled, parts searching vainly for a whole.
“Europeras 1 and 2” presents, by intention, a grand tradition at a dead end. “Mittwoch,” by contrast, suggests a new beginning, though where it might lead is hazardous to guess. Both productions were done with immaculate style and drew capacity crowds. Each night, I saw an odd gleam in people’s eyes, a childlike state of alertness and surprise. Even those who had been soaked by the trombonist couldn’t help smiling.