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Review: Stockhausen's 'Mittwoch' is otherworldly in Birmingham

The opera is imaginatively presented by Graham Vick as part of Britain's Cultural Olympiad. The afterimages resonate.

August 27, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Debs White is part of the cast performing in an abandoned chemical factory as "Mittwoch aus Licht" is presented by Birmingham Opera Company.
Debs White is part of the cast performing in an abandoned chemical factory… (Helen Maybanks )

BIRMINGHAM, England — Who would be crazy enough to write an opera called "Wednesday" and require for one scene that four noisy helicopters — real choppers like the ones that drive us to distraction at the Hollywood Bowl — fly over the theater with microphones on their rotors so that the chop, chop, chop can be mixed into the sound of the score?

There is also a dancing camel that becomes president.

What kind of director in his right mind would want to stage this? What opera company needs this kind of headache? Such meshugas doesn't come cheap, so where might funding be found?

The composer was the German visionary Karlheinz Stockhausen (I know "visionary" is overused, but Stockhausen was a visionary), and his "Mittwoch" (its German title) is the midweek opera from his seven-day, 29-hour "Licht" (Light) cycle.

Although completed in 1995 (Stockhausen died five years ago), "Mittwoch" had never been staged in its entirety until the noted British director Graham Vick mounted it last week with Birmingham Opera Company, which he founded 25 years ago to present exceptional special annual projects.

Being part of Britain's Cultural Olympiad, nearly all the "Mittwoch's" $2.5-million cost came from public funds. Tickets sold out instantly for the four performances, and people from dozens of countries headed to an abandoned chemical factory in a dicey part of Birmingham on a stormy night, only to sit on the floor or sometimes awful little stools for an opera that lasted more than six hours.

However bad "Mittwoch" was for the back, the event was astonishing for the soul and simply beyond belief. If opera is meant to change your perception of what is possible and worthwhile, to dream the impossible dream and all that, then this is clearly the spiritually uplifting way to do it. And it was funny too.

There might seem a lot to scare people away from "Mittwoch." The score is based upon complex and intricate musical formulas. It involves vast amounts of electronic technology, and the technical demands on singers and instrumentalists are staggering.

The first scene is an hour-long electronic music "Greeting," which Stockhausen suggests should be played in the dark and listened to with our eyes closed unless you want to watch someone fly a kite. Hey, it's Stockhausen.

Vick's solution was to unpredictably pierce Stockhausen's multidimensional electronic wonderland with unpredictable, illuminated screwball tableaux vivants, so brief as to seem like afterimages. Characters popped out of the audience. They climbed walls. Someone flew a kite. There must have been a hundred extras, members of the community whom the director admirably likes to draft into his Birmingham productions, one or two a year.

It is hard not to make "Mittwoch" sound silly. In the second scene, 12 groups of world parliamentarians sing, in unknown languages, that all you need is love (the composer spent part of the '60s in Northern California). A small chorus surrounded the audience in a large circle, their faces painted like flags. At the bit where love was likened to "cosmic gluten," the singers smeared the paint on their faces and writhed on their high chairs. The extremely strange vocal writing is like nothing you've ever heard, unless, that is, you come from a different solar system, as Stockhausen was convinced he did.

In the third scene, the 13 instrumentalists float overhead. Vick strapped brave players onto trapezes. Each competed for virtuosically weird effects, while we lay on cushions looking up.

Stockhausen envisioned musicians ultimately leaving Earth, and the next step for him was to require the members of a string quartet to be strapped into the seats of four circling helicopters. The strings make continual vibrating sounds that interact with the helicopter noise, the audio and video piped back down to the audience. The effect can be arresting, the rotors starting to seem like musical instruments — the conventional ones — as if they could propel a listener into other realms.

Unfortunately, this is the one scene in which the performance was not outstanding. The Elysian Quartet lacked the proper sizzling edge. Stockhausen also wanted the scene to have a live narrator and for the quartet to come back to the hall and take questions from the audience. But having a pop music DJ be the MC was a rare Vick misstep. The Elysians mostly talked about being scared aloft this night because of the rain.

The quirky camel scene followed. It takes place in a different universe, and it felt that way too. Vick offered the "Mittwoch Farewell," more electronic music meant for the dark, as an opportunity for the audience to mingle and feel the love. We did.

On a local note, Vick's assistant director was Yuval Sharon, founder of the experimental new L.A. Opera company the Industry, which he modeled in a modest way after the untraditional Birmingham Opera. I hope the "Mittwoch" production can be interpreted as a sign of where the Industry might go in the best of all possible worlds. Or should I say other worlds?

mark.swed@latimes.com

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