Wednesday, 27 April 2011

SONNTAG aus LICHT Teil 2, Oper Köln

[SONNTAG aus LICHT Teil 1, see here]

The second part of SONNTAG aus LICHT began in Auditorium B, where the raked seating faced the now unscreened expanse of the deep stage with its black pool of water. In this pool, the 4th scene, SCENTS – SIGNS – took place. Yet the scene spilled out beyond the parameters of the performance space, as a major factor of the scene is the burning of 7 different kinds of Incense, each scent assigned to a day of the week; as the incense is burned as part of the performance on stage, dark figures walk the stairs by the side of the seats with incense burners, to ensure the audience get a proper nose-full of each perfume. Although theatre is a sensual art form, it is unusual for the sense of smell to be engaged in a performance (an exception was Rufus Norris' production of Afore Night Come at the Young Vic in 2001, where the pungent smell of pears viscerally brought one into the pear-orchard setting). Of course, incense as an element of religious ritual has a long history and it is this tradition which SCENTS – SIGNS plays into. As the incense is burned, the singers (again done up as space-age medievalists)  and dancers conduct obscure rituals in the pool. Large metallic frames are lit and burn with flame; a circle of fire is built around Lucifer, making his only appearance in this LICHT opera (and surely giving a nod towards the circle of fire placed around Brünnhilde by Loge in Die Walküre) and providing some deeply compelling baritone singing as he is immured. I got the impression watching this scene that we were very much back in the world of a pre-Reformation Europe, where initiates performed obscure ceremonies for a captured audience who dimly realize that some rite is being performed but we're not sure what (perhaps some Stockhausen adepts in the audience – dressed resplendently for the occasion in white -  understood all the minutiae of the work more than I did). Yet despite not knowing quite what was happening, I was overwhelmed and seduced by the spectacle – glad to be a passive recipient of the ministrations of these priests and witch doctors of LICHT

Again, I felt like something was unfolding in the time the scene takes – on this occasion, the scene comes to a climax of extraordinary beauty. The boy Michael is summoned to the stage area and, after singing a beautiful duet with Eva, a (puppet) white horse glowing with light appears, cantering on the water towards them Michael is placed on the horse which flies off. This is a moment of monumental, heart-stopping gorgeousness in which the heavens open and we are in a world of magic and beauty (I couldn't help reflect how much more meaningful and heart-stopping this moment was compared to anything in the drab and dreary War Horse, which many English audiences have somehow taken for an evening of theatrical magic and emotional affect; how much more does SONNTAG aus LICHT bring the idea of peace into the audience's heart…). The music and ritual SCENTS – SIGNS had taken me, through the seven days of the week (each with its own sign and scent) from turbulence to union and ascension.

By now, the audience were accustomed to being summoned to each new scene by a short musical phrase and, on hearing this, we rose from our chairs and departed our standing points in the makeshift bar and lobby and walked, as one, towards the auditorium of the next scene. There was something reminiscent of the notes which summon the connected humans in Close Encounters of the Third Kind to the Mothership or, indeed, the bells or muezzins which call traditional devotees to services or prayers. It could be said that the event had trained and pacified us to have an almost Pavlovian reaction to this musical phrase, yet such was the beauty of SCENTS – SMELLS that I was in no mood to critique the situation from a rationalist or cynical standpoint; truly, Lucifer had been restrained.

The beauty of SCENTS – SMELLS had raised my expectations of the rest of the opera, yet little prepared me for the overwhelming affects of the 5th scene, HIGH TIMES. HIGH TIMES is, even for this opera, an unusual challenge to the producer. The music is arranged for both choir and orchestra. In Auditorium 1, the choir music is performed whilst simultaneously, in Auditorium 2, the orchestral version is played. On top of this, on 7 occasions, the two different performances blend with each other – here with the help of live visual/sound relay. The audience is divided into two (we were given gold cards instructing us) and one half goes into Auditorium 1 for the choir whilst the other half goes into Auditorium 2 for the orchestra. I was sent to Auditorium 1 for my encounter with what turned out to be one of the most awe-inspiring theatrical events I have ever witnessed.

In Auditorium 1, the HIGH TIMES choir is unseen. The audience walks into a promenade space (the deckchairs have gone) and sees a number of dance troupes around the room. The audience tentatively realizes that we are free to walk amongst these. The dance troupes each represent ecstatics from different cultures; there are Sufi dervishes, Hindu Brahmins, Buddhist monks, African shamen and, representing Europe I suppose, 4 club dancers – 2 go-go boys in gold Speedos and 2 women in lesbian chic suits (they will get into both hetero and homosexual couplings as the scene progresses). As the  divided choir sings in various languages – as an audience we come into the orbit of one or other as we walk around the space – the impossibly agile and beautiful dancers perform routines of mystery and wonder, generally mystical marriages/unions. As this goes on, the choirs and the dance troupes begin to mash up; the sections where the orchestra from Auditorium 1 is heard and appears on giant screens are most intense. This, the revelation seems to say, is the world we walk through when we see it right – a world where ecstatic mystics praise God in their many ways. 

As an adjunct to the dancing, individual dancers get into a plastic suit-cover which acts as a cross between a gimp-suit and a Matrix-pod, and breath through tubes until being released; a kind of odd enacted image of immersion in and rebirth from consumerism. The light horse then appears, with a Sufi mystic on its back; the sense of wonder and the insistent power of the music at this point were combining to give me rushes of joy. Whilst the horse flies around us, bucking and turning like a bronco, the troupes disappear then reappear on stilts. They gently – oh-so-kindly and patiently, sometimes with a light and loving touch – shepherd us into the centre of the space; we find ourselves corralled there, surrounded by the stilt-giant dancers and a wall of large round white shapes. The dancers put airplane-like wings on and, at the moment of climax, raise them. We are encircled by these beings, lights shine and we stand in the silence, the music having come to an end. The moment here, with us held in the circle, was an extraordinary hiatus. We didn't know what to do. We all knew, in our heart of hearts, that this was the end of the scene but no one dared move, as if we didn't want to break some spell. Then the dancers lowered their wings and, of course, we clapped. I came out of this scene buzzing with excitement.

Back in Auditorium 2, the orchestra play HIGH TIMES for the second time that evening (the dancers and choir, extraordinarily given the energy and precision demanded from the piece, are at it all again in Auditorium 1). As a number of small ensembles play in the pool, pairs of instrumentalists come out of their bands and play together, enacting as they do odd abstract scenes. Images are projected on a screen behind the orchestra and on a transparency across the front of the performance space (at the 7 times, we are shown what is happening in Auditorium 1). One odd anomaly is that we see a projection of an audience in the circle we found ourselves in at the end of the choir version – but these people take their clothes off, dance and pray (should we have done this, if we were truly in tune with God?). Slogans are projected, which are not in the libretto but which may be quotes from Stockhausen (although they were a bit generalist) – "Mankind must listen to its Visionaries", "Mankind must abandon political and religious parties" or "Mankind must live its life in the face of the Life After Death"; not messages to appeal to a rationalist or Mr. Worldly Wiseman. HIGH TIMES for Orchestra is somewhat less overwhelming an experience than the version for Choir but that kind of suited me; it bought me gently down from the adrenalin rush of the previous scene and sent me out of the event in a thoughtful and becalmed frame of mind.

We left the venue to the strains of a pre-recorded Stockhausen piece – SUNDAY FAREWELL – the miraculous, other-worldly sound of which is was hard to tear oneself away from (many of us lingered to hear more, that the spell not be broken). Finally leaving, I walked along the bank of the Rhine, the sound of SUNDAY FAREWELL growing distant. Across the river, the Cathedral glowed in its strikingly lit night time presence, truly the vision of the Kingdom of God which its medieval originators wished pilgrims to see, rising out of the earth and pointing towards another world.

Against all odds, SONNTAG aus LICHT was a constantly compelling and life-affirming experience. As a theatre event, it is memorable and unique. How rare it is to see a contemporary work of Art which affirms Light, Love and Union and how much against the prevailing trends of rationalist doubt Stockhausen was pushing his work and audience. It raised many questions in my mind – Do we need, regularly, a time spend imagining another, brighter world? Have we lost something now most of us have abandoned religious rituals? Do we need to turn off the inner and outer voices of cynicism and doubt, criticism and objection now and again in order to access something else? Do we spend far too much time mired, as William Blake would certainly suggest, in the rationalist world of Newton, Bacon and Locke (or, today, perhaps Hawking, Dawkins and Hitchens) and deny ourselves time spent bathing in the Light? Denying ourselves Sunday, our day of Rest…

Saturday, 23 April 2011

SONNTAG aus LICHT Teil 1, Oper Köln

When I read that Oper Köln were producing the world premier production of Karlheinz Stockhausen's SONNTAG aus LICHT, the temptation to spot such a rare bird (alongside the opportunity to visit for the first time the city of Köln itself) proved too much. Nevertheless, I was in two minds about seeing the opera – the piece was being produced over two nights and is the culminating part of the composer's seven part LICHT cycle of operas, one composed for every day of the week. The LICHT cycle is based around the rather obscure cosmic interplay between three characters - Michael, Eva and Lucifer - each of whom is represented musically by a formula which is then experimented with over the many hours of the seven operas. I'd heard a recording of SAMSTAG aus LICHT and, although I liked the music, the libretto as printed in the box set is almost impenetrable and very difficult to visualize as a piece of theatre.  But on the basis that the opportunity to see one of the LICHT operas is something unlikely to come around too often - only one, DONNERSTAG aus LICHT, has ever been staged in London (at Covent Garden) and I get the impression that the British critics gave it the kind of welcome that isn't likely to encourage our main houses to try that kind of thing again - I booked tickets, a hotel and flights...

I was delighted to read, just before going, that the staging of the opera had been placed in the brilliant hands of the Catalan theatre troup La Fura del Baus, whose production of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre was atriumph at the ENO and whose Valencia Ring cycle, available on Blu-ray, is a successful attempt at placing Wagner's masterpieces in the context of virtual reality. If anyone could make SONNTAG aus LICHT work, it was them.

Yet SONNTAG looks, on paper, impossible. Not merely the length, not merely the acquired taste that is Stockhausen's music but the concept of a near-on eight hour opera in which there is not only minimal story but also absolutely no drama whatsoever doesn't promise to be a theatrically exciting event. Lucifer, the cycle's antagonist described by the composer as "this very sceptical and often negative spirit" (Ermen & Stockhausen, 2011, p. 190), scarcely appears in SONNTAG and when he does he is easily subdued. The work is about the "mystical union of Eve and Michael" (Ibid.) and they spend the entire opera working together in order to, wait for it, praise God. Stockhausen said "All of this worships God through my music, because from the very beginning I have composed my oeuvre to worship God. Now it has been said. And the music sounds like that, I think." (Ibid., p. 193) Not an event, therefore, which is likely to go down a storm in European intellectual circles, sceptical and negative as they tend towards being. But also, it didn't sound something that would possess the energetic drive which I, for one, hope for from an evening (or two) of live performance.

The opera is made up of five scenes and a "farewell". Oper Köln have staged the piece as an enormous site-specific project in the Staatenhaus am Rheinpark, a large 1920s building largely used for conferences and "events" on the right bank of the Rhine. The opera is staged in two auditoriums – A, a circular, white space and B, a very long, rectangular space with raked seating facing an impossibly deep "stage". The first two scenes are staged in A, where the audience sit on (unreserved) low-lying deckchairs with the performance going on around them. 

Immediately, the first scene LIGHTS – WATERS (SUNDAY GREETING) is like very little I've ever seen and heard before. Lying in their deckchair, the audience listens to a long, sonorous, inter-weaving duet between Michael and Eva; the musicians are instructed by the pair to move around the auditorium and play from specific points (all of this, as well as the lay-out of the auditorium, is specified in detail in the libretto). Both white- clad, Michael in a spacesuit sings from a sideways-rotating podium whilst Eva wanders around mostly encased in a rubber suit in which a number of voiceless, white-faced women writhe (reminiscent of the Borg). Through the scene, some obscure slow process seems to be taking place – giant fan-wings rotate above us and projections of space, planets and radar-screens travel around the walls and ceilings. This all reminded me, in terms of imagery and pace, of the spacecraft docking scenes in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. By the end of the scene, Michael and Eva have achieved something, although it is hard to put one's finger on exactly what. They have, along the way, sung the praises of Light and the Solar System. I got the feeling that, by the end, a union has been completed…

Scene two, ANGEL PROCESSIONS, is also in auditorium A; we returned but took different deckchairs – some of the audience were freaked out by this randomness and the idea that the place they say in scene 1 isn't still "their" place. In this scene, seven angelic choirs, each dressed in a different colour of rubber suit, move down the aisles of the auditorium, each singing in a different language (Hindi, Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic,  African [Kiswahili], German), finally placing flowers on a central pillar. The choirs create a polyphonic and rather mesmerising sound; again, things are sonorous but by the close of the scene, something seems to have been achieved. For me, the scene offered a vision of several "missions" of light-bearers/message-bearers bringing their "flowers" (I take these metaphorically) to the earth.

In scene 3, LIGHT PICTURES, we meet Michael (sung superbly by the Tenor Hubert Mayer) again but this time in Auditorium B. We are given 3D spectacles on the way in. Michael and three musicians – trumpet, flute and basset horn – stand at the front of a shallow pool of water before a giant screen. The musicians play (from memory) and the tenor sings praise to the seven days of creation (these don't correspond to the Biblical account), culminating in the praise of God and his church. As this happens, computer-generated 3D images are projected and it is as if each figure – whether it be an abstract amoeba or an imagined landscape or a recognisable animal – is travelling through a cosmic mind, which of course is the mind of the individual audience member at the time of performance. Amongst the final images we see are the twin towers of Köln's famous Cathedral. Occasionally, the screen is pulled back and an impossibly deep expanse of stage is revealed, the rest of the pool then a concrete surface; on this, dancers perform abstract moves. It is as if the surface of reality is occasionally pulled back to reveal the cosmic dance of creation behind it. This scene is spellbinding. Again (as in all the scenes), the music – which seems at first shapeless – has a culminating effect and I felt as if I'd been witness to some mysterious process; perhaps not merely witness but party also, as the audience at a ceremony or ritual are not merely passive spectators but partakers in the ritual event. Intriguingly, Michael and the musician are dressed here in a mix between futuristic and medieval costumes, as if the future Stockhausen envisages is a return to a world pre-Reformation.

The first evening of SONNTAG aus LICHT was a fascinating experience. I was mostly spellbound by the music, yet not moved. Some (Luciferian?) doubts persisted in my mind as to the mysticism of the piece – was it just all just a load of intriguing-sounding New Age cobblers? Yes, the staging and projections were overwhelming in their beauty but does the event have any intellectual substance? Nevertheless, I looked forwards to the second evening without any feelings of weariness or wariness.

(Continued in next blog)

Works Cited
Ermen, R., & Stockhausen, K. (2011). Karlheinz Stockhausen talks to Reinhard Ermen about SUNDAY from LIGHT. In K. Stockhausen, SONNTAG aus LICHT: (pp. 189-210). Kürten: Stockhausen - Stiftung für Musik.