Wednesday, July 6, 2016

DONNERSTAG AUS LICHT: Basel 2016

Detail of Basler Münster (Basel Cathedral)
Introduction
     On June 25th, 2016, a new production of Stockhausen's first opera, DONNERSTAG AUS LICHT (Thursday from Light) premiered at the Basel Theatre in Switzerland, with stage direction by the American-born, Europe-based Lydia Steier (with sets designed by Barbara Ehnes, costumes by Ursula Kudrna, and video effects by Chris Kondek).  This opera, the first in Stockhausen's LICHT opera cycle, originally premiered at La Scala, Milan in 1981, and was last staged in 1985 at Covent Garden in London.  For this third production, the opera received a fairly dramatic "makeover" in it's scenic design, setting, choreography and costuming.

     The original score for DONNERSTAG includes very detailed instructions for many elements of the stage production, and this kind of control is a hallmark of Stockhausen's compositional oeuvre, almost from the start of his career.  In this way, he manages to coordinate (or "harmonize") the music with the visual presentation of his works.  Stockhausen's designs for DONNERSTAG are detailed in this site's entries below:

Original Synopsis
     In short, the first Act, Scene 1, KINDHEIT, describes the youth of the main character MICHAEL as he is torn between the conflicting emotional and intellectual desires of his mother EVA and his father LUCIMON (this scene notably features many elements which reflect Stockhausen's own childhood).  Scene 2, MONDEVA, describes MICHAEL's encounter with a musical space creature named MONDEVA (Moon-Eve), and their attempts to communicate and learn from each other through melody.  In a tandem setting, Michael's mother and father are killed by euthanasia and war, respectively.  Scene 3 is an examination setting where MICHAEL explains his past experiences to a panel of four judges in order to "graduate" to his next state.

     In Act 2, MICHAEL pops in and out of different regions of a giant globe of the Earth, in effect "traveling" through 7 global regions and portraying MICHAEL's experience as a human being on Earth. Near the 7th Station, MICHAEL hears the basset horn call of EVA, an incarnation of MONDEVA, who he'd met in the 1st Act.  MICHAEL leaves the globe to pursue EVA, as a pair of mischievous wind players appear (but which are soon reprimanded and "crucified" by somber brass).  At the end, MICHAEL reappears with EVE and they play intertwining melodies as they "ascend" together.

     In the 3rd Act, MICHAEL has returned to a heavenly plane where he is welcomes by yet another incarnation of EVA.  The first part of the Act, FESTIVAL, presents highly ritualized sequences involving lighted gifts and images and other heavenly phenomena.  At one point a small globe-shaped gift opens to expel a devil-like incarnation of LUCIFER, and the MICHAEL-dancer is forced to battle this disruptive force.  After the devil has been defeated, yet another incarnation of LUCIFER appears at a balcony box and taunts MICHAEL and EVA.  In Scene 2, VISION, MICHAEL (still in his 3 incarnations of tenor, trumpet and dancer-mime) explains LUCIFER's origins in a musical-choreographic soliloquy.  He then explains why he took on a human form and experienced the pain and joy of growing as a human. Seven visions ("shadowplays") are projected on a screen which act as "time-windows" into his Earthly existence and subsequent return to the Heavens.  He ends DONNERSTAG AUS LICHT by proclaiming his love for Mankind.

     Overall, this opera has a premise which begins on a relatively mundane and localized premise (family/education), moves to a global setting (a semi-symbolic journey around the Earth), and then ends in a "cosmic" homecoming, with a few somewhat slapstick-ey moments thrown in to keep things from becoming too overly pompous (MICHAEL defeats the dragon-devil with the help of the orchestra conductor's baton stick, for example).

The Basel 2016 Production
DONNERSTAGs GRUSS in the Basel Theater's lobby stage, featuring a 70's lounge band playing Stockhausen music.
 (photo © Motoko Shimizu)
     The 2016 Steier production essentially revamps/remixes most of the elements of the opera except for the musical score itself.  In other words, everything that was not anchored with a treble or bass clef symbol was deemed open to revision.  Steier's team apparently felt that Stockhausen's original stage premise would need major alterations in order to make the opera more palatable to "contemporary audiences", and thus gave the visual narrative a much more cynical, self-parodying flavor, reducing much of the cosmic symbolism in the original staging to a more traditional opera narrative with a decidedly more "Earthly" through-line.

     The story begins the same, with Michael's dysfunctional childhood, but the euthanasia of Michael's mother becomes a more pivotal flash-point which is revisited in each of the subsequent Acts.  The stress of Michael's childhood causes him to have an apparent mental breakdown, during which he has an Oedipal fantasy (the father repeatedly shoots down auditioning Eve's in various states of moral undress, much to Michael's chagrin).  In the second Act, after admittance to a mental hospital, Michael travels not around the world, but only within the confines of the patient rec-room, and has video-projected hallucinations (partially induced through chemical means) about imaginary adventures in various global locales, .

     The third Act finds a grown-up Michael (as a Christ-like, Stockhausen-circa-1977 figure) becoming a kind of enlightened "guru" in a celestial church, and administering to a somewhat insouciant choir of "space children" acolytes.  Additionally, the dragon-devil figure which Michael fights in FESTIVAL takes on the post-modern costuming of a drag-queen, and in the end Michael becomes disillusioned with the dogmatic restrictions of his own church.  The final Vision scene features a 5-way soliloquy between the 5 incarnations of Michael characters from all 3 Acts, but with a curtailed selection of "mime-plays" concentrating on his relationship with his mother.

     A more detailed comparison between Stockhausen's original staging instructions and the Steier team's alterations follows (photos © Sandra Then, click to enlarge).

Act/Scene Original score setting Basel 2016 Staging
DONNERSTAGs GRUSS
(Thursday Greeting)
     Classical musicians perform in an opera house foyer-salon in traditional performance dress.      A somewhat lackadaisical cabaret band of smoking and drinking 70's-era beatniks perform as a lounge act.
Act 1: MICHAELs JUGEND (Michael's Youth)
Scene 1: KINDHEIT (Childhood)      Scene 1, KINDHEIT, describes the youth of the main character MICHAEL as he is torn between the conflicting emotional and intellectual desires of his mother EVA and his father LUCIMON (this scene notably features many elements which reflect Stockhausen's own childhood). 
     Scene 1 plays out relatively traditionally with Michael's attentions being baited by the mother and father, each at cross-purposes.  A central glass enclosure however includes the addition of dancers with giant mannequin heads miming a private family birthday party (one of the presents is a toy robot, which will make a reappearance in the 3rd Act).  The father-son hunting trip is arrived at with Michael riding on his father's back, instead of on a bicycle.  A video screen later shows the rather graphic skinning of a rabbit, as the mother is presented on a blood-soaked bed, having just miscarried (the original score features a short-lived infant brother).  In the original score, a dancer, LUCEVA, appears and the father flirts with her, but here the dancer appears only in the pantomimed birthday enclosure scene.
Scene 2: MONDEVA (Moon-Eve)
Original MONDEVA costume.
www.karlheinzstockhausen.org)
     MONDEVA describes MICHAEL's encounter with a musical space creature named MONDEVA (Mooneve), and their attempts to communicate and learn from each other through melody.  In tandem settings, Michael's mother and father are killed by euthanasia and war, respectively.
     The original score prescribes a simultaneous triptych of scenes between the 3 characters, but here the father and son's scenes are melded together into an Oedipal, Busby Berkeley-inspired fever-dream where a rotating succession of Moon-Eves are shot and killed by the father (these female images are drawn from the various women's magazines read by the Mother in the first scene).  Eventually the dream features a distant Eve's cry, which distracts the father long enough for Michael to shoot his father dead, after which Michael's interplay with Moon Eve continues normally.
Scene 3:
EXAM
     Scene 3 is an examination setting where MICHAEL explains his past experiences to 4 judges in order to "graduate" to his next state.
     Instead of a university thesis examination, here Michael is apparently strapped to a psychiatric bed and is tested by doctors with chemical and shock treatments.  The academic jury is here replaced by white-coated doctors with plastic noses.  At the end, Michael is deemed fit for what will soon be revealed as an insane asylum.
Act 2
MICHAELs REISE UM DIE ERDE
(Michael's Journey Round the Earth)
www.karlheinzstockhausen.org)
     In Act 2, MICHAEL pops in and out of different regions of a World's Fair-proportioned Earth globe, in effect "travelling" through 7 ethnic regions and portraying MICHAEL's experience as a human being on Earth. Near the 7th Station, MICHAEL hears the basset horn call of EVA, an incarnation of MONDEVA, who he'd met in the 1st Act.  MICHAEL leaves the globe to pursue EVA, as a pair of mischievous wind players appear (but which are soon reprimanded and "crucified" by somber brass).  At the end, MICHAEL reappears with EVE and they play intertwining melodies as they "ascend" together.









     Here, Michael journeys only within the confines of an insane asylum, populated with zombie-like mental patients being "treated" with cold water baths and other uncomfortable-looking therapies.  A seated audience of patients watches a film projection featuring images from around the 7 world stations (intended as a "soothing" video-therapy), as the overhead stage video screen simultaneously displays Michael and his dance and trumpet incarnations travelling "Monty Python-style" through dreamlike impressions of the 7 ethnic landing spots (Africa features graphic footage of lions killing and eating a deer, and Japan features an animated Godzilla from which Michael and his reflections are forced to flee).

     In the original staging of the scene, the Michael- trumpeter has a "consoling" duet with the contrabass, but here that aspect is visually ignored and only heard.  Instead, Michael acts as a "sane" person trapped inside an insane asylum (ie - "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"), and comforts a patient who resembles his mother.  In the finale of the Act, a Christ/Stockhausen-like figure (complete with a white, chest-baring shirt) appears, bathed in light.
Act 3: MICHAELs HEIMKEHR (Michael's Homecoming)
Scene 1: FESTIVAL
Covent Garden, 1985
(© www.karlheinzstockhausen.org)
     MICHAEL has returned to a heavenly plane where he is welcomes by yet another incarnation of EVA. FESTIVAL presents highly-ritualized sequences involving lighted gifts and other heavenly phenomena.  At one point, a small globe-shaped gift opens to expel a devil-like incarnation of LUCIFER, and the MICHAEL-dancer (as a toreador) is forced to battle this disruptive force when it changes into a dragon.  After the devil has been defeated, yet another incarnation of LUCIFER appears from the balcony and taunts MICHAEL and EVA.
www.karlheinzstockhausen.org)




     Foil-wrapped "acolytes" are seated on bleachers, as the Stockhausen/Michael/Christ figure ministers to a line of supplicants.  The old woman appears with the re-emergence of the toy robot from the first Act's birthday party.  Additionally a stack of video monitors arranged in the figure of a robot (inspired by Nam June Paik's work) is wheeled onto the stage, featuring a soundless, kaleidoscopic collage of Stockhausen's zoomed-in eyes and face, speaking (extracted fragments from archival interview footage).

     Instead of a drag(on)-devil appearing out of a globe, a drag-queen in gothic "Lolita" garb appears out of a giant birthday cake (again hearkening back to the first Act).  The Michael dancer (in a schoolboy uniform) battles the drag-devil.  Eventually the "real" Lucifer appears, not from the balcony or a crane, but as a ghost-like video-apparition from within the glass enclosure.
Scene 2:
VISION
     MICHAEL (still in his 3 incarnations of tenor, trumpet and dancer-mime) explains LUCIFER's origins in a musical-choreographic soliloquy.  He then explains why he took on a human form and experienced the pain and joy of growing as a human. 7 visions ("shadowplays") are projected on a screen which act as "time-windows" into his Earthly existence and subsequent return to the Heavens.  He ends THURSDAY FROM LIGHT by proclaiming his love for Mankind.      Michael climbs over the choir bleachers to end up in a starkly-lit space in order to give his final solo.  He is accompanied by the Michael trumpet and the other previous incarnations of Michael.  The video projects the moving lips of Michael (though sadly not synchronized to the live voice).  The reminiscences of Michael's previous episodes are recited, but the flashback "shadow-plays" are limited mostly to the disturbing fate of Michael's mother (death by gas, instead of injection) as the grown-up Michael struggles to save her through the glass walls.
DONNERSTAGs ABCHIED (Farewell)      The staging of DONNERSTAGs ABCHIED (Farewell) proceeds in the traditional manner, with 5 trumpeters performing from rooftops surrounding the exit of the opera house.

Final curtain call Basel 2016.
(photo © Motoko Shimizu)
Impressions
     This production of DONNERSTAG AUS LICHT obviously takes dramatic (no pun intended) liberties with Stockhausen's original score instructions.  For this reason, it might be worth considering this production to be a kind of "remix" or maybe more specifically a "collage", with Steier's premise to be one collage element, and Stockhausen's musical notes and rhythms as the other.  The first scene is more or less "faithful" (or at least within the realm of traditionally-accepted production changes),  but from the second scene on the degree of divergence increases to the point that in some scenes the libretto text (which, like the music, remains mostly intact) seems to be accompanying a completely unrelated stage action or image.  For example, the Moon-Eve scene has a text which is basically a flirtatious seduction, but the stage action features the execution of several prospective Eves without any consequence at all in the text - Michael just keeps on talking to the next Eve as if it were the same one as the previous one.  This strange juxtaposition of contrasting text and image has the effect of producing something like the dadaistic/impenetrably bizarre theater of George Foreman (for example).  However, if one follows the stage narrative without paying too much attention to the libretto, it actually ends up having a form of internal logic and consistency (I think).

     In any case, I was totally engaged and enthralled by the entire 6 hour experience, as the performances from the musicians and dancers were top-notch and at a level of which I'm sure Stockhausen himself would have enthusiastically applauded (the staging would probably have left him apoplectic).  However it often felt a bit like having the rug pulled out from under my feet due to the amount of divergence from Stockhausen's original staging instructions.  Certainly many in the "Stockhausen circle" have felt dismay at the amount of redressing done to Stockhausen's work, and Stockhausen himself frowned upon "remixes" of his work.  I personally wish that a version of DONNERSTAG AUS LICHT with Stockhausen's original premise were available as a film so that an "integral" version could be experienced by a greater audience.  Steier's vision is an interesting experiment and recommended viewing (as long as one accepts that it is a Stockhausen-Steier collaboration), but I also strongly believe that a "faithful" staging would survive a contemporary audience if done right.

     Lydia Steier's production of Stockhausen's DONNERSTAG AUS LICHT is presented at the Basel Theatre three more times in 2016: September 29, October 1 and 2, during the end of the GALAXIE STOCKHAUSEN, a Stockhausen mini-festival from Sept. 26 to Oct. 2.
Listening to DONNERSTAGs ABSCHIED performed from 5 rooftops outside of the Basel Theater,
with Elisabethenkirche in the background.
(photo © Motoko Shimizu)
Links
DONNERSTAG AUS LICHT at Theater Basel Page
Program (PDF, includes a revealing interview with the Basel production team in German)
English Libretto (PDF)
Trailer 
Lydia Steier Page

Reviews
Rolf Kyburz Review (English)
Ben Harper Review (English)
"Oppressive Intense Psychodrama" BR Klassik (German)
NMZ.de (German)
SWR.de (German)
NZZ Welt (German)
der-neue-merker.eu (German)
"Devil from a Cake": Stuttgarter Nachrichten (German)
"Engel für Charly": van.atavist.com (German)
"Kürtener's Astonishment at a Radical Staging": Bergische Landeszeitung (German)
Die Deutsche Bühne (German)
OMM (Online Musik Magazin) (German)
ResMusica (French)

1 comment:

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