Three Days, Four Helicopters, One Bone-Shaking Opera Marathon
AMSTERDAM — The “Helicopter String Quartet,” which is exactly what it sounds like, tends to be the headline-maker of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s seven-opera cycle “Licht.”
How could it not be?
That bonkers moment — it came more than a dozen hours into “Aus Licht” (“From Light”), a breathtaking three-day selection of scenes from Stockhausen’s magnum opus, presented by the Holland Festival here through June 10 — calls for sending a string quartet out of the hall and into a field, where the players board separate helicopters. As they take off, the music begins, broadcast back to the audience on four video screens.
It’s really more of a double quartet: The helicopters are instruments too; the pilots, their players. Tremolos in the strings (here the Dutch Pelargos Quartet) begin to blend with the chopping noises of the rotor blades. No matter what happens — even if a violinist’s shoulder rest falls off, like it did on Sunday — they have to do their best to stay together. If anything, surprises are fodder for the last part of the piece, a panel discussion back in the hall once the helicopters land.
“Helicopter String Quartet” delivered on spectacle. More unexpected was how deeply human it was, and how much more meaningful than it comes across on recordings. In the context of scenes from “Licht” about cooperation and connection, it no longer seemed like a punch line or publicity stunt; it was a statement, if an ecologically reckless one, about what is possible when people work together.
Could Stockhausen have made this point more modestly? Obviously. But extraordinary human feats often share this kind of grandeur. Wagner’s “Ring,” Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” even the engineering of Amsterdam’s canals — they’re a little insane, maybe even a little irresponsible, but also painstakingly constructed and, in the end, magnificent to behold.
To that list I would add the mystical, mesmerizing “Licht” — and “Aus Licht,” conceived and directed by Pierre Audi but made possible by an unfathomably long list of artists including Kathinka Pasveer, Stockhausen’s widow and the music director of this production, a collaboration of the Dutch National Opera, the Holland Festival, the Royal Conservatory of The Hague and the Stockhausen Foundation for Music.
It would be impossible for any single institution to stage a complete “Licht” cycle (1977-2003): seven operas, each representing a day of the week, totaling 29 hours. But Mr. Audi has come close with this abridgment, which at 15 hours (and several more of optional electronic music for what the festival called “dedicated listeners”) spread among three days distills Stockhausen’s cosmic ambition without sacrificing the work’s awe-inspiring scale.
[Behind the scenes of how “Aus Licht” came together.]
“Licht” aims to be about no less than light itself: “the source of everything,” said Stockhausen, who died in 2007 at 79. “It is energy, it is consciousness, it is the pulse of the universe, the electricity of all universes.”
The operas — all derived from just a minute or so of music (a “superformula”), divided into seven units that provide the tonal foundation for each installment — don’t unfold as a story so much as a series of meditations on grand themes like birth, war and reconciliation. What little plot there is features three recurring, biblically inspired protagonists: Michael, represented by a tenor and a trumpet; Eve, by a soprano and a basset horn; and Lucifer, by a bass and a trombone and flute.
There is no strict order for the operas, or even for the scenes within them. Each component of “Licht” is modular by design, since its inspiration is the never-ending cycle of life and death. Some chapters stand alone as concert works (“Helicopter String Quartet” had its premiere like this, at the Holland Festival in 1995), and some are musical rituals, with a clear debt to South Asian and Japanese drama.
Mr. Audi doesn’t attempt to impose too much of a through-line in his production. But in his arrangement of the scenes, a progression emerges from the concrete — “Thursday,” the most autobiographical of the operas — to the abstract (“Tuesday” and “Wednesday,” built more around concepts than characters). And, as if to reject any idea that Stockhausen is impenetrable, Mr. Audi begins each program with short videos of grade-school children painting their ideas of Michael, Eve and Lucifer and explaining scenes from “Licht.”
If they can get it, you can, too.
Mr. Audi is otherwise generally faithful to Stockhausen’s stage directions — not just in the “Helicopter String Quartet,” but also, for example, the instructions to arrange the orchestra into the shape of a man’s face for “Lucifer’s Dance.”
Any divergence from Stockhausen appears to have emerged from austerity; every performance took place at the Gashouder, a former gasometer inside Amsterdam’s Westergasfabriek complex, while the composer called for the cycle to move among multiple spaces.
But this is by no means a poor man’s “Licht”: Mr. Audi has designed the Gashouder, a space not unlike the Park Avenue Armory in New York, to be a dynamic house of spectacle, changing during every intermission into a new configuration for both the audience and performers. (Mr. Audi, as it happens, is the artistic director of the Armory, which would fit this production like a glove. But there are no plans to bring “Aus Licht” to the United States, primarily because of its logistical challenges. This may be opera’s missed opportunity of the century.)
Inside the circular Gashouder are two stages — one fairly traditional and the other a set of scaffolds like the “Donkey Kong” arcade game brought to life — united by a canopy of swooping strips of light. Hanging even higher are nearly 100 speakers — truly, the stars of “Aus Licht” — that prove, again and again, that Stockhausen was the master of surround sound. (Former colleagues of his are among the sound design and projection team.) His score, a richly layered aural experience — with clicks, breaths and bow strokes that, ethereal and impossible to locate, get under your skin — makes a case for music’s ability to shake your bones, tickle your ears and take hold of your consciousness.
I wish I could credit the hundreds of performers, some of whom prepared through an “Aus Licht” master’s program and all of whom sang, played and acted with commitment and confidence. Most — even the staggeringly talented children’s choirs — were required to memorize their complex parts.
Jerome Burns was a joy to watch as the soloist in “Michael’s Journey” from “Thursday,” perhaps the greatest trumpet concerto not to have that name. Marta Goméz Alonso, in the flute solo “Kathinka’s Chant as Lucifer’s Requiem,” written originally for Ms. Pasveer, was fearless in demonstrating the sonic possibilities of her instrument. And Ian Pavlov, impressively appearing in all three programs, was a nimble keyboardist, relishing the “Klavierstücke” passages and appearing in a mad rush as Synthi-Fou, a sort of sci-fi Phantom of the Opera who concludes the “Invasion Explosion” scene with an unhinged synthesizer solo.
In the “Licht” operas, Stockhausen wrote some of the finest choral music of the past half-century. The beauty of the gorgeous “Girls’ Procession” is rivaled only by the chilling music for children, here the Nationaal Kinderkoor and the Nationaal Jongenskoor, taken to heaven by the Pied Piper (the flutist Felicia van den End) in “Abduction.” The Nederlands Kamerkoor becomes a comic congress in “World Parliament.” Then, more solemn, the Leids Studenten Koor en Orkest Collegium Musicum provides a sublime ending to “Aus Licht” with the “Angel Processions” from “Sunday.”
With that angelic procession, the cycle ostensibly begins anew. Even after devoting the better part of three days to “Aus Licht,” I would happily have stayed to take it all in again.
Through June 10 at the Gashouder, Amsterdam; auslicht.com.