Monday, 27 August 2012

Mittwoch aus Licht, Birmingham Opera Company

For the past three months I have been preparing for and participating in a short run of performances of Stockhausen's opera Mittwoch aus Licht with the Birmingham Opera Company. For all our insider knowledge of the staging, and the information we were offered in order to help us make sense of it, this is still a bewildering art-work in which to find oneself and I thought I'd try to record the experience in order to get a grip on it.

This production of Mittwoch is a first as the technical demands (principally, logistics and cost) have scuppered any previous attempts at a contiguous staging. In addition to the infamous, unconventional helicopters and the usual paraphernalia of producing conventional operatic staging, there's also the apparatus necessary to suspend a dozen or so orchestral players from the ceiling and the intricacies of wiring every performer for sound, mixed live and projected octophonically in two auditoria. That and hogging all Birmingham's available yellow paint (the colour assigned to the opera).

It's a relief then that a production that might reasonably sustain accusations of profligacy exhibits just as much lo-fi, real-time theatrical graft with which to present Stockhausen's conceit. Graham Vick's Birmingham Opera Company co-opted the Argyle industrial estate, a plot between a canal and a ring road providing a two-hall factory and a now-familiar temporary home for the company. However this familiarity in no way compromised its appropriation for Mittwoch as its size and anonymity (and faintly dystopian resonance) makes a suitably vast, blank space for this alien piece.

Crucially, labouring underneath all the high-end electronics and ambition were not only traditional singers, instrumentalists and dancers but also a large number of enthusiastic, amateur locals. The community corps of the company were present throughout the production, embedded either with the 'professionals', or the audience or performing in their own right. In this more than any other piece they seem to carry the philosophical-aesthetic kernel of Stockhausen's vision; that the boundaries between the world and the performing space are fluid and that the sound and theatre of the event within should envelop and permeate. True Gesamtkunstwerk. Incidentally, Wagner, whose own music dramas were responsible for this term created his final piece in this mould as a Bühnenweihfestspiel, or 'stage-consecrating festival play', which is just as good a way of describing Mittwoch.

The opera opens with this body of actors in a tableaux of visions, Greeting, picked out in a blackened hall with sharp lighting. These move across the diegesis offered by the factory building, with characters climbing pipes on the walls in nimble parkour routines or a child's face at an interior window, moving into more confusing images; pregnant women moving between impassive men, a naked woman washing in a child's paddling pool, a woman knitting or weaving like a Norn aboard a massive dais on casters. A man with a model of a commercial airliner picked out in the centre is particularly startling (but more of that later). The effect of the whole, underpinned by a slowly shifting synthesized backing is very strong, a nicely calibrated theatrical acclimatiser, warming up the audience's imagination.

The next scene (the first of the opera proper) is in the adjacent hall. World Parliament is an exclusively choral piece performed (by Birmingham choir Ex Cathedra) atop fifty or so yellow step ladders (in place of the Fritz Lang or Ayn Randian like vision of their straddling skyscrapers). Dressed as politicians whose national flags are painted on their faces, the undulating discussion makes sense through the waves of gestures coming from different sections of the choir and the lines of (consistently well-sung) individual solos. Any risk of pomposity, or that the symbolism of the costuming, nationalist make-up or the elevation of the performers may be drying the drama is punctuated by a prosaic interruption from a traffic warden. This is one of a number of a number of boyish interpolations - prescribed by Stockhausen, rather than Vick - which help the audience keep a grip on the reality of the performance amidst the psychedelia. The smearing of the make-up at the conclusion to uni-form their appearance is a nice simple touch in keeping with the rather earthy, sexualised acting.

The subsequent scenes are at the heart of the piece. Orchestral Finalists has a dozen instrumentals suspended from the ceiling, bobbing, cavorting, misbehaving and occasionally playing, whilst the acting company rush in and out, taking on their own bestial characters or in reaction to the instrumentalists. It's a theatrical menagerie, and the most explicit statement in Stockhausen's drama to the evolutionary continuum that formed the centre of his philosophy. This is the vision of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, above), where the split-second transition from apes to space travel is midwived by Johann Strauss - and catalysed by strange electronic transmissions.

Photo: Intermezzo.typepad.com
Indeed, there is also a spaceman in Orchestral Finalists. Flight in general is becoming important, with origami birds and paper aeroplanes introduced among the musicians 'flying' above the ground. It's into this situation that the commercial airliner from the opening is introduced once again. Strong for being a unique, repeated trope, I suddenly found myself associatively confronted with 9/11, and not least as the tableau concludes as the actor bearing the model meets a mimed London underground train carriage (the scene dissolves into white-rabbit watch-checking). In a possibly anachronistic work of art (the original conception for Licht dates from the early 1970s) with its warm but nebulous messages of mysterious psychological associations and international unity through (sexual) love, this token seems hard, dark and up-to-date. Stockhausen's reputation suffered after he made comments about the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the context of the themes of Licht. Though there isn't an immediate suggestion that this symbol is intended to refer to either his comments or the event itself, it does serve to open that pocket of the imagination. With the possible exception of the final scene, Mittwoch appears to have little story and so little in-built tension with which to propel the drama. The introduction of such a symbol as a commercial airliner (Lufthansa, not United Airlines-liveried, it should be said) is a bold move to stretch the envelope of the experience at hand without manipulating or commenting on Stockhausen's intentions. I suspect it's also a characteristic sleight of hand on the part of Vick, focusing the experience without skewing its meaning. What the director couldn't have foreseen (one assumes!) is that during the first run-through, a fire in an adjacent tyre factory would provide a smoke-cloud backdrop to the images being broadcast from the helicopter cameras, which might recall airborne TV cameras during 9/11, even if only in the fiction of memory.

Whatever the production symbolism, the opera's meditation on flight is most explicit in that Helicopter String Quartet, the next scene. Impeccably - and informally - rendered by the Elysian Quartet, pilots, technicians and the 'Essex boy of Sri Lankan descent' Radio 1 DJ Nihal, the piece itself cannot quite sustain its own profuse ideas. However, it is extraordinary that such violent sound can be organised to provide a potentially tantric experience for the audience and I did find myself mesmerised after the manner of Messiaen or even Steve Reich's Different Trains.

After a break (curry in the car park!) came Michaelion, the final scene, that in which I was participating as part of London Voices. The flight thematics have now dispersed in, once again, a Kubrickian-psychedelic flight into the universe, with Brahmin regeneration at its end. The most conventionally operatic staging, this is a dark, dynamic piece for a choir of soloists and four virtuosic guiding instrumentalists. Characters rush into one end of the hall, stained with nuclear-bright effluent as if caught in an explosion, and attempt communication with some alien music of the spheres. If World Parliament was the Pontificate, then this is the Catholic proletariat looking for guidance, if not salvation. As in the menagerie of Orchestral Finalists, this scene reminded me of Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility Of An Island, a dystopian sci-fi work where futuristic humans at different stages of their evolution are reduced to bestial communication. And bestial it is, as the company is visited by a camel, greeted in ecstasy but once again moderated with the bizarre, prosaic episode of having its hooves shined and then being fed alcohol.

It is almost impossible to tell what is being communicated - a fact built in to the dramatic approach of this staging - with the lo-fi approach extending the the use of hand held instruments (literally bells and whistles). Additionally the singers act out stymied interaction with a soloist with a radio set, Vedically transformed from the camel who has keeled over. With no conclusion to these transactions, there is a sense of wonder and sorrow at the close. A laconic trio of instruments, the Basset-Horn Trio, orbit the soloist like planets before the chorus move out into the hall to sing an epilogue in the form of a sextet echoing the closing of a Bach passion. With the company's actors embedded in the audience in yogic poses, it's impossible to know where to ground one's sense. My experience was one of expansion, dizzyness: too remarkable for a modern post-industrial disaster, too dark for spiritual ecstasy.

Perhaps in an attempt to address this, the production ends with drinks in the first hall, an artistic decision to incorporate the Farewell, a chance to meet the performers and discuss the piece. I was grateful for the reality check, which came under yet more solar system symbolism, a large yellow light after the opera's colour, a replica of the sun such as in Danny Boyle's Sunshine (2007) or even Olafur Eliasson's Weather Project (2003) for Tate Modern (above). I felt as if I was a passive party in some Mayan benediction.

In rehearsals with our Musical Director Kathinka Pasveer I had asked about the text and meaning of the close of the opera proper. It was important to learn that the influence of The Urantia Book, Stockhausen's source text for the characters referred to in the opera had little influence on its content. The more important texts are those intoned by the tenors at the close of Michaelion, Stockhausen's self-penned lines of the principles applied to his 1968 work Aus dem sieben tagen (after he had read the teachings of Sri Aurobindo) - the need for being receptive to and relaying music already abroad. Equally, the Tibetan Book Of The Dead, intended as a guide for the Bardo (the end of one life and the beginning of the next) and a text with which Stockhausen did spend a lot of time, undoubtedly finds its own mystic, serious and alien inflection at the close. The enemy of this is the rationalising Lucifer, fruitlessly trying to impose order throughout with the persistent counting down from thirteen.

At the curtain call it was as if I were applauding everyone, including myself and those not present. I learned nothing - but here at my desk, a day later, I feel freshly sensitive to things both concrete and imaginary.

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