Theater Basel, 2016
Titus Engel, Lydia Steier, Peter Tantsits, Anu Komsi, Michael Leibundgut, Rolf Romei, Paul Hübner, Emmanuelle Grach, Merve Kazokoğlu, Evelyn Angela Gugolz, Stephen Menotti, Eric Lamb, Ansi Verwey, David Dias da Silva, Markus Forrer, Romain Chaumont, Emilie Chabrol
Sonostream - 1 October 2016
In the world of contemporary music, there are still few compositions that are more formidable, challenging and controversial as those of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Whether it's his 'Helicopter String Quartet' to be played by four musicians on separate helicopters, 'Gruppen', his work for three orchestras or his various experiments and innovations with tape recordings and electronics, there are few modern composers who have stretched musical boundaries quite so far.
It's not surprising then that Stockhausen's major opera work Licht, written between 1977 and 2003, is also one that pushes the art form to its limits. A series of seven operas, one for each day of the week, adding up to about 29 hours of music, it's not surprising that Licht (Light) isn't performed more often, even in its individual day components. It's a major event then when a segment of Licht is performed and Theater Basel's production of Donnerstag aus Licht (Thursday from Light), first performed at La Scala in Milan in 1981, is the only full performance there has been of this work in the last 30 years.
It's no easy matter then to summarise what Licht, or even Donnerstag aus Licht is all about. It's certainly possible to describe what takes place in Donnerstag on a narrative level, but the musical element (which is far from conventional), the autobiographical elements (which appear strange and eccentric to say the least), and the spiritual element (which is a level that is intended to run through everything else, musical, narrative and autobiographical), are all wrapped up in religious symbolism and a great deal of narrative and musical symbolism that Stockhausen has developed for himself.
To try and describe it as simply as possible however, Donnerstag aus Licht describes the early childhood of Michael, a spiritual being or angel who has been born in the body of a man with the intention of growing up to be the saviour of mankind. That salvation will be through the gift of music. As the final lines of Donnerstag describe it, Michael says his purpose is "to bring celestial music to humans and human music to the celestial beings, so that humanity may listen to GOD and GOD may hear his children." Michael's ascension to this messianic role is however not an easy one and he is tormented in his progress by Lucifer, who despises mankind and is full of disgust that Michael has taken on the form of one of these low creatures.
Michael's troubled childhood in Act I is not that far removed from Stockhausen's own, his mother - who takes on a symbolic form as Moon-Eve, while his father is to some extent aligned with Lucifer - is incarcerated in an institution for mental illness after her husband accuses her of having an affair. Confined to an asylum himself, Michael however receives a vision that tells him he is a celestial being who is to be the saviour of mankind, providing spiritual nourishment through his music (a belief that would come to be another part of Stockhausen's increasingly eccentric personality in later life).
In the entirely musical Act II of Donnerstag aus Licht, Michael assumes his role of saviour in a three-form incarnation, one as a tenor singer (Peter Tantsits), one as a trumpeter (who does all the 'singing' for this Act), one as a dancer (there are three-part Evas and three-part Lucifers as well). He undertakes visitations to major centres around the Earth; to Cologne, to New York, Japan, Bali, India, Central Africa and Jerusalem. His appearances heralding his Mission are followed with his trials of Mockery, Crucifixion and ultimately Ascension. Act III sees Michael's homecoming, a return to his celestial residence. Worshipped by choirs and greeted by Eve, Michael performs a ritual of Light with plants. It's here that Lucifer makes his strongest play to turn Michael away from his mission in a fight and a bitter exchange, but Michael resists.
Quite how seriously you are supposed to take this is not really open to question; you're supposed to take it very seriously indeed. Theater Basel were even obliged to publish a statement from the Stockhausen Institute that largely approved of the performance of this major work by the composer, but expressed grave reservations that the tone was darker than the composer would have liked, that it was too earth-bound with not enough emphasis on the 'light' that embodies the spiritual side of the work. It's a very stiff and humourless statement and unnecessarily restrictive and intolerant of any idea of interpretation.
Lydia Steier's direction for Theater Basel does however stick closely to the detailed descriptions and copious notes that Stockhausen lays out for the presentation of Donnerstag aus Licht, as well as for the musical delivery, complete with its precise indications and enumeration of noises, clicks, syllables, symbols and gestures that are as significant a part of the score and the singing as any conventional instrumentation. The production even opens with a Thursday Greeting in the lobby of the Theater Basel before the start of the main performance, humorously performed here with Titus Engel and a small band dressed in 70s' outfits and wigs puffing away on cigarettes between, and it closes outside the theatre with a Trumpet Farewell after the performance.
Steier takes much of the actual opera at face value, although she does attempt to tie it to a more conventional reality than the high-flown ideals of the Stockhausen Institute might have liked. Michael's journey around the globe in Act II seems to take place here from within his own mind while in the asylum, his mission an attempt to re-establish contact with his catatonic mother. There's a bit of humour as the trumpeter Michael destroys Godzilla at the second station in Japan, but apparently there's little room for either interpretation or humour in Stockhausen's self-important vision of himself as a cosmic musical saviour. All the grandeur of the piece is there however, particularly in Act III's choirs and battle with Lucifer.
What the Basel production does manage to achieve then is the sense of Licht as a real operatic event. Evidently the streamed version is a very different experience to being present at the actual event, but the sense of this being an opportunity to experience a rare work of genuine interest and significance, and share it with the world is commendable. Barbara Ehnes's set design is impressive in its efforts to make the complex musical lines, vocal lines, and multiple levels of Donnerstag aus Licht easy to follow. A rotating stage allows the work to flow beautifully around a tower that is used for back projections and as a window into Michael's mind and scenes from his childhood. Whatever the merits of Stockhausen's epic work, at the very least you have the opportunity to see that vision staged and it's hard not to be impressed either with the ambition of the work or its execution here.
Links: Theater Basel, Sonostream