- Eight, aus Licht, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being Immersed in Opera
Amsterdam, with its Holland Festival, De Nationale Opera & Ballet, and Opera Forward Festival, and Rotterdam, with its festival Operadagen Rotterdam, both continue to ensure the high visibility of the Low Countries on the contemporary opera map. Among the highlights of the 2019 Holland Festival were two operatic performances: aus Licht (from Light), selections from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Licht cycle directed by Pierre Audi; and Eight, a “virtual reality installation” by Michel van der Aa, here given its world premiere. Aus Licht was Audi’s farewell production after his record-breaking thirty-year directorship of De Nationale Opera & Ballet. The spectacle took place in Gashouder, part of a former Amsterdam gas factory, and had been in preparation for a full four years, involving more than 450 rehearsals and preview performances during the Opera Forward Festival in 2017 and 2018. A number of students from the Royal Conservatory of The Hague took part, as a new Master’s program related to Stockhausen’s Licht had been established there to facilitate this tour de force.
With its duration of twenty-nine hours, Stockhausen’s magnum opus Licht, Die sieben Tage der Woche (1977–2003) is probably the most extended operatic phantasmagoria ever created, and certainly one of the Holland Festival’s biggest and most ambitious productions. I met up with Karlheinz Stockhausen, the “mystical showman of the musical avant-garde,”1 in Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Foundation quite a while back, when several of his works were performed and introduced by him there over a period of several days. He had something of the bearing and single-mindedness of a guru, and in my memory of the occasion his New Age aura somewhat overshad-owed his music. At the time I was by no means immersed in that world, and I was therefore curious to experience Licht for the first time, and perhaps to question my attitude toward New Age poetics. In Amsterdam we did not see the complete version of Licht, but a large selection from it. It was produced as a fifteen-hour music theater marathon spread over three days and performed by a battalion of performers, including four helicopters and their crews transporting the performing musicians of the Helicopter String Quartet.2 There were three cycles of three-day performances lasting from May 31 to June 10, 2019. It seemed as though director Audi was determined to position the bar so high before departing De Nationale [End Page 358] Opera & Ballet for the post of Director of Festival d’Aix-en-Provence that his successors at DNO would have difficulty measuring up.
Michel van der Aa, more than forty years Stockhausen’s junior, belongs to the middle generation of composers on the Dutch scene, and the key institutions belonging to that scene have commissioned and produced a number of his works.3 Today, Van der Aa is one of the most notable names associated with a reinvented relationship between music, media, and technology. His output is characterized by an obvious intention to question the attributes of identity, and particularly its elusive nature. This tendency was already apparent in some of his earlier compositions— See Through (2000), One (2002), Second Self (2004), Imprint (2005), Mask (2006), After Life (2005–2006)—all concerning the multiple perspectives that might be adopted when we interrogate identity and its uniqueness. Following the 3D film opera Sunken Garden (2011–2012) and the digital, interactive song cycle The Book of Sand (2015), Eight is notable for Van der Aa’s intensification of opera-music-multimedia explorations by “zooming in” on the possibilities of virtual reality in music theater. The work lasts about fifteen minutes, only one person can experience it at a time (you have to reserve a time slot), and there are no live performers in it.4
At first glance, it may seem that Licht and Eight could not be more different. But there is an important point at which these two pieces unexpectedly overlap; namely, their dependence on the immersion of the listening spectator.5 Let me start with Eight.
When I previously visited the stunning Muziekgebouw Aan’t Ij...