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)
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.