Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Manoury - Kein Licht (Paris, 2017)

Philippe Manoury - Kein Licht

L'Opéra Comique, Paris - 2017

Julien Leroy, Nicolas Stemann, Sarah Maria Sun, Olivia Vermeulen, Christina Daletska, Lionel Peintre, Niels Bormann, Caroline Peters

Salle Favart, Paris - 21st October 2017

Kein Licht is not strictly speaking an opera. It's so avant-garde that the composer Philippe Manoury had to come up with a new term to describe it; a Thinkspiel. Or, to give it its full title, it's "Kein Licht (2011/2012/2017): A Thinkspiel by Philippe Manoury and Nicolas Stemann, for actors, singers, musicians and real-time electronic music, adapted from a text by Elfriede Jelinek". It doesn't sound all that different then from most contemporary operas and Kein Licht isn't as ground-breaking as it thinks it is, but there are certainly some new and quite surprising innovations here.

Kein Licht is however at least a very considered work, one that not only strives to deeply examine its subject, but also tries to consider what role of a contemporary opera is and how it can best reach an audience. A contemporary opera should use all the resources at its command; theatrical effects, projections, 3-D graphics, electronic music, amplification if necessary, actors as well as singers, and it should use all these means to deliver a message that is relevant, entertaining and accessible even to an audience who wouldn't go to a traditional opera. Kein Licht does well on most of those points, but I'm not so sure about the last one.

It certainly has the best of intentions. Instead of spending a year writing, composing, rehearsing a work that would at most get four performances in a Paris theatre, there was clearly a greater effort to extend the life and the outreach of Kein Licht. It was developed as a co-production with the Ruhrtriennale, the Opéra national du Rhin and the Festival Musica in Strasbourg where it played before making its opening at the newly restored Salle Favart of the Paris Opéra Comique. Crowd-funding also played a part in the work's creation, and the word has been spread through extensive promotion, radio interviews, scientific conferences, YouTube videos and a radio broadcast of the Festival Musica performance. This performance on the 21st October at the Opéra Comique was captured on video for a live web broadcast. There was clearly a great belief in the project and an effort to get it out there.

It's all the more important that the resources put into creating Kein Licht reach a wide audience, since the opera is indeed about making the best use of energy, or to be more precise, it's about how we unthinkingly consume the world's resources without any consideration of the consequences. The jumping off point for consideration of these themes is a series of writings by Nobel Prize winning writer Elfriede Jelinek following the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan. Director Nicolas Stemann, who has worked on lyrical and dramatic presentations of Jelinek's texts before, notably with Olga Neuwirth, worked with composer Philippe Manoury to bring these thoughts to the stage in what would appear to be the only way possible; in a 'Thinkspiel'.

The manner in which the subject is approached is plain enough, but the presentation is a little more complicated. A lot more complicated actually. Jelinek's thoughts on the subject are divided into the three parts of the time of their writing - 2011, 2012 and 2017. Part I - 2011 deals with thoughts around the disaster of Fukushima and the danger (and the actuality) of its warning not being heeded. Part 2 - 2012 then looks at a world in denial, even as the disaster unfolds, people taking selfies as the world falls apart around them, belatedly realising that they soon won't have power for the batteries of their iPhones. Part III - 2017 has the more difficult task of looking at where we are now in a world that appears to be rushing headlong into madness, with global warning being ignored and disputed, with nuclear warheads being launched, and Trump at loggerheads with North Korea.

That makes Kein Licht sound rather more coherent than it actually is. Jelinek's texts, imagery and associations are often obscure, even if what lies behind them is clear enough. There is obviously no dramatic narrative as such and no characters either in the Thinkspiel. Two actors A and B perform/declaim/act out the texts and the suggestion is that they can be seen as opposing aspects of the human conscience, or as elementary particles in nuclear physics, while four singers (mezzo-soprano, soprano, contralto and baritone) and a chorus also with undefined roles provide lyrical expression of the ideas on a set of leaking nuclear reactors that collapses into complete meltdown leaving a flooded world. In terms evoking an appropriate mood, it's certainly representative of a state of chaos in thinking and in behaviour.

As the title Kein Licht perhaps indicates, Manoury references Stockhausen, albeit adopting a contrary position ("Without Light") to Stockhausen's cycle of a utopian vision in Licht ("Light"). Musically too, Stockhausen is an undeniable influence as one of the great electronic music innovators and visionaries. Manoury relies on many of the same extended techniques, but does take things further. Thanks to modern technology and research developed by IRCAM, Manoury is able to be freer with live electronics, auto-generating music that is responsive to live performance, synthesising live singing with the sound world to create new musical sounds. Some of it - most of it - is lyrical, dramatic, plaintive and creative. The howl of a live dog 'sings' at the start of Part I for example, and in Part II is joined by the other singers howling to create the most extraordinary live chorus unlike anything else in music.

Such innovations are to be found throughout Kein Licht, in the music performed by United instruments of Lucilin and conducted by Julien Leroy and in the theatrical presentation that creates 3-D graphics in real-time. While it is a fascinating work from that point of view and unquestionably responsive to the subject, the treatment and the situations, it does still feel a little over-worked to the cost of delivering the important message in the most effective manner possible. Manoury himself appears on stage and on live projection as part of the performance, explaining the musical ideas, what we are listening to and what we are seeing, which does unquestionably help understand what the creators are trying to get across. A synopsis given out at the theatre also proves essential to following what is going on, otherwise Kein Licht could prove to be just too clever and risk leaving its audience completely bewildered.

Kein Licht has to be seen on those terms, replete with its footnotes and commentaries. Which is not to say that it fails in its endeavour since it's not conventional theatre or conventional opera that tells you what it thinks or plays out a drama. It is indeed a Thinkspiel and that means that it is about bringing in involvement and being responsive to it, looking at itself and being reflective. It's even self-critically aware that it is part of a hugely wasteful capitalist system and as such a drain on precious resources that the planet will eventually have to pay for, but that's all part of the complicated A/B dialectic that the viewer themselves has to come to terms with. Entertaining, innovative and thought-provoking but chaotic, contradictory and often confusing, the response to Kein Licht is likely to be similarly divided.

Links: L'Opéra Comique, ARTE Concert