Karlheinz Stockhausen: Opera “Donnerstag” aus “Licht”
(Donnerstag aus Licht / Thursday from Light)
Theater Basel, 2016-06-25
Stockhausen’s “Licht” — The Concept
“Licht” (“Light”), originally named “Hikari” (Japanese for “Light”) is a seven-part opera cycle that Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 – 2007) composed between 1977 and 2003. The term “Opera cycle” doesn’t describe “Licht” properly, though. With this cycle, Stockhausen intended to create a Gesamtkunstwerk that goes way beyond what Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) created with his four-part cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen“:
- Stockhausen’s cycle is in seven parts, one part per day of the week.
- It’s much longer: altogether, “Licht” is 29 hours.
- Richard Wagner wrote the music and the libretto, his “Ring” cycle is definitely a Gesamtkunstwerk. Karlheinz Stockhausen not only wrote the music and the libretto, but the latter includes the complete choreography, and a detailed script covering actions, gestures, and stage layout.
“Licht” is a play around the figures of Luzifer (Lucifer), Eva (Eve) and Michael. These figures are Stockhausen’s creations, but the cycle altogether has a serious religious, mythological, and symbolic underpinning (Stockhausen was a deeply religious catholic). “Licht” covers every day of the week (Montag … Sonntag). Stockhausen started writing the cycle in 1977. He wrote the 4-hour opera “Donnerstag” first, finishing it in 1981.
This 4-hour opera consists of a “Gruß” (Greeting), 3 acts, and an “Abschied” (Farewell). In this part of “Licht“, Luzifer clearly links to Satan, and Michael can be seen as related to the archangel (if not even Jesus).
“Donnerstag” premiered at the Scala di Milano, 1981. Later, in 1985, there was a second performance at Covent Garden Opera in London. Since then, the score has been resting in archives. I read speculations that (particularly in Germany) the cycle is regarded as “too religious”. However, I don’t think that this is the whole story, see below.
This performance in Basel (two more are scheduled in the season 2016/2017) is the first one in over 30 years. Obviously, it was the first performance in Switzerland. The event has been sold out for months. It turned out as a gathering of the Stockhausen community form all over Europe.
With the breaks, the evening lasted almost 6 hours:
- “Gruß” (Greeting), played in the foyer of the theater: ca. 15 minutes
- (transfer into the theater)
- “Michaels Jugend” (Michael’s Youth): 65 minutes
- Intermission: 30 minutes
- “Michaels Reise um die Erde” (Michael’s Journey around the World), instrumental only: 45 minutes
- Intermission: 60 minutes
- “Michaels Heimkehr” (Michael’s Return): 80 minutes
- “Abschied” (Farewell), outside of the theater: 20 minutes
Note that I’m not considering myself an expert on Stockhausen and his music (actually, I have not listened to music by Stockhausen in many years). I see my comments should as the views of an interested, unbiased layman.
As mentioned, Stockhausen’s score takes care of the tiniest of details, down to gestures, positions of the artists on stage, layout of the scenery. This leaves very little freedom for the stage direction. The booklet claims that the direction tried detaching itself from the narrow, accurate definition of the score, allowing for (some) more freedom — allegedly without violating Stockhausen’s intent. However, based on this information (and without having access to the score), I cannot judge which portion of the performance is following the composer’s instruction, and which part of the “result” is a creation of the stage direction.
Artists / Cast
Direction, Orchestra, Choir
- Stage Direction: Lydia Steier
- Stage Design: Barbara Ehnes
- Costumes: Ursula Kudrna
- Choir of the Theater Basel
- Choir of the WDR (invisible choirs, recorded, from tape)
- Alumni of the Hochschule für Musik FHNW / Musik-Akademie Basel (“Gruß“, “Abschied“)
- Sinfonieorchester Basel (Basel Symphony Orchestra)
- Direction: Titus Engel (*1975)
Artists on Stage
The production features 15 individual artists. The three main figures (Michael, Eva, Luzifer) are typically performed by a singer, an instrumentalist, and a dancer / mime in parallel. Only the main characters are listed here:
- Anu Komsi, soprano
- Merve Kazokoǧlu, bassett horn
- Evelyn Angela Gugolz, dancer
- Michael Leibundgut, bass
- Stephen Menotti, trombone
- Eric Lamb, dancer
Location, Venue, Date
Theater Basel, foyer, main stage, terrace in front of the theater
2016-06-25, 16:00 — ca. 22:00
The performance started in the foyer of the theater, with a 15-minute instrumental segment “Gruß”. From the decoration, the colors, and the setup of the podium, one could have expected a Pop concert (see the picture above). Indeed: to me, this segment felt like a parody of Pop music in the late 60’s/70’s. The musicians casually emerged in little groups out of the rear of the gallery (left in the picture), smoking, drinking out of whisky glasses, long hair, in colorful dresses (red, black, pink, beige, dark green), looking somewhat outlived. It was a little brass band, initially with trumpets, trombones, horn, tuba, plus the conductor, all acting with exaggerated gestures.
They played three fanfare-like pieces, more instrumentalists were added for piece No.2 and No.3, in the latter also included a piano and percussion. The music was anything but Pop, of course: dissonant, but also festive. It instantly reminded my of Stockhausen’s earlier pieces, and I also sensed allusions to Minimal Art, maybe also to Aleatoric Music. In the last part, the musical flow & gestures appeared to approach the human language, maybe imitating human singing. With this, I gradually felt taken / transferred from the ubiquitous music in our daily life into the (serious) art music that followed.
The three central parts (acts I .. III) of the opera all use one single, basic stage design: an inverted, truncated pyramid or cone, with semi-transparent and reflecting walls. These walls partly served as projection screens, as mirrors, then again (with the inside lighting turned on) one could see symbolic scenes in the center. Above the inverted pyramid, nearly up to the ceiling, there was a large cylindrical projection screen. This was used for text, symbolic and pictorial content. The central structure stands in the center of a circular, turning stage (the pyramid did not rotate).
The action is presented in multiple layers. The center (particularly in the first part) intermittently shows symbolic scenes from Michael’s youth. Around the pyramid, there’s the “real” action, initially mostly with three singers, Michael, Eva, and Luzifer, whereby Eva and Luzifer initially are presented as Michael’s parents. Eva later converts to Mond-Eva (moon-Eve), see below. Each of these characters / singers is associated with an instrumentalist and a dancer / mime, as indicated above.
Most of the action happens on the rotating part of the stage (the rotation is turned on intermittently, as needed), sometimes also outside, on the outside, fixed part of the stage. Of course, there are also additional characters, but just mimes and instrumentalists. The last act also features a choir, sitting or standing on rounded segments of seating tiers on either side of the rotating stage.
“Michaels Jugend” (Michael’s Youth)
In the first act, there is no visible orchestra, just the instrumentalists on stage. Additional instruments and a choir (in recordings a from a tape) sound from behind the scenes / off stage. The stage extends across the orchestra pit.
In this part, Stockhausen is “digesting” parts of his autobiography. There are strong and direct references to events / incidents in Germany / the time of the Nazis, in Stockhausen’s youth.
Michael and his father (Luzifer), as well as the associated mimes / instrumentalists, appear like members of the Hitlerjugend (dress, haircut, etc. — though without Nazi symbols). Luzifer, a bass with excellent, full, rounded voice, dies in the army (Stockhausen’s father died in the war).
From the point-of-view of voice & volume, this act is dominated by Michael’s mother Eva, sung by Anu Komsi: a firm, projecting and expressive voice, with an impressive volume, where required. Eva suffers a miscarriage and is gassed in an environment that looks like a mental asylum (Stockhausen’s mother is a victim of the euthanasia program and is indeed gassed in Hadamar / Hessen-Nassau). Eva then is transmuted into / reappears as Mond-Eva, Michael’s ideal / lover.
Michael (a tenor with excellent diction, a clear, smooth and well-projecting voice) passes an exam. He is accepted into the “High School of Music”.
Comment on the Performance
The actions and their presentation are plausible and conclusive. Still, I have some objections. I understand Stockhausen’s need and desire to digest the traumatizing events in his own youth. At the time of the composition (1977 – 1981), there was certainly still a substantial, general need to understand and digest what happened during WWII. However, by now, the generations that once that direct exposure to these events are disappearing. Sure, we all must not forget what happened in that period, 70 – 80+ years ago. However, in order for the action in this opera still to be relevant to today’s audiences, shouldn’t one transferr the action into today’s (or a more recent) pictorial language?
The plot line is overloaded with (interpretative / explanatory) repetitions. Stockhausen has consciously decelerated the flow in this opera, but the musical flow is overstretched beyond measure. This extension of the action trail also causes the musical scope to appear relatively narrow; only the addition of a piano towards the end helps widening the spectrum. Too bad that Stockhausen’s rigid and stringent score & libretto leave no opportunity for streamlining the flow.
On top of that, the scenes in the mental asylum appear as clear quotes from Miloš Forman‘s film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975). These quotes appeared so direct that to me this feels worn out. Maybe today’s generations have forgotten about that film? Or do I feel this way because the film (back in 1975) made such a strong impression on me?
“Michaels Reise um die Erde” (Michael’s Journey around the World)
The second act is purely instrumental (no singing). Here, the stage now features two groups of instruments: a group of wind instruments at the right edge, a piano, a harp, and percussion on the left. Titus Engel now coordinates from the front edge of the stage.
The main action stream — rather: scenery, because there is very little concrete action — entirely takes place in a mental asylum. This is represented by a white fence around the central structure, personnel, and patients being treated and placed in front of a TV screen. The visual association with Miloš Forman’s film is even much stronger, if not offensive. One can follow the course of the journey around the world through projections above the stage (titles, concrete and abstract imagery), as well as via the TV screen for the patients.
From a musical point-of-view — even just from the instrumentation — this act clearly offers more than the first one. I really liked the “speaking” saxophone, and the segment with the virtuosic double bass pizzicatos. The instruments also covered the vocal part in this part.
“Michaels Heimkehr” (Michael’s Return)
For the third and longest act, the stage had moved back towards the rear. The orchestra pit was now open and fully staffed, including string sections. Also the brass and percussion sections were now in the pit. The return / home-coming is taking place in a Hereafter, with retrospectives to scenes from the previous acts. It clearly has a religious underpinning. The figure of archangel Michael now was a tall, long-haired character in a white dress. He resembled popular visualizations of Jesus. Luzifer has transmuted into Satan (he appears in the central structure, in the background).
The Hereafter aspect is clear from the costumes, the lighting, the projected images (symbolic Christmas tree? see the picture below), and by choir on either side of the central structure. The singing of the choir was definitely OK. Though at least from closer-up (I was sitting in row 9, in the parquet), the acting of the choir members appeared put-on. It lacked credibility even as a caricature. I’m not sure whether the caricature aspect was intentional.
On the part of the music, this was clearly the richest, the most compelling part of the opera. The action on stage was largely symbolic, rather than concrete, presenting and illustrating religious and pseudo-religious motives, slogans and basic principles, but not directly bible-related.
A word on the speculations about the opera being “too religious” that I referred to mentioned earlier-on. I don’t think the religious aspects in this opera are that objectionable, nor do I find the opera to be blasphemous or otherwise offending for religious people. I rather think that Stockhausen’s rigid pictorial representation, the entrapment in a very specific historic setting may be (or will become) an obstacle towards this opera seeing more frequent realizations on stage. See also my remarks about acts I and II.
I don’t really know whether one should attribute some of this to the stage direction, though (see again above). It is possible that Miloš Forman’s film is no longer present in people’s mind these days, which might make the related aspects in the first two acts more palatable.
Retrospectively, on the part of the music, the dominating segment of the opera is the last act. I returned with a recollection of a rich, multi-faceted composition, excellent singers and instrumentalists (both in the orchestra and on the stage), all competently directed by Titus Engel. The long applause was fully justified and well-deserved. Especially for this last act, this was a very successful performance, and an excellent opera experience!
The “Abschied” consisted of a free, casual gathering of the audience in front of the theater. After a short while, musicians started playing simple, but overlapping, microtonally shifted trumpet fanfares from the balconies of nearby and more distant buildings, across the streets. They let them fade away, then repeatedly resumed again, all for a little over a quarter of an hour. Despite the people talking, street noises, etc.: an atmospheric message from a Hereafter?
For the same event, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.