Opera: Karlheinz Stockhausen / Samstag aus Licht

Le Balcon Ensemble & French Army Choir (2019)
Composer and Librettist: Karlheinz Stockhausen
Damien Pass (Lucifer), Alphonse Cemin (Pianist from Lucifer’s dream), Claire Luquiens (Flautist Kathinka), Julie Brunet-Jailly (Flautist), Emmanuelle Grach (Ribbon dancer), Henri Deléger (Trumpeter), Mathieu Adam (A Trombone Devil), Ayumi Taga (Organist).

I have always loved the idea of Karlheinz Stockhausen. That there was such a person. Someone who challenged assumptions about what 20th Century music could be, and masterminded intriguing concepts of performance and presentation.

The grind of listening to Stockhausen’s music or watching his performances is another thing altogether, and that thing is something I usually do not love.

I have in my bloated music library many recordings of Stockhausen’s piano, chamber, and electronic works. I can only experience these works in small doses because it’s some pretty bitter medicine.

But I have fascination with modern opera so at some point I have to do my penance and review something from this titan of the European 20th century avant-garde. So I have decided to watch the Medici.tv streaming production of Samstag aus Licht – literally, the “Saturday” segment from Licht, an opera cycle made up of seven different operas representing the days of the week. Samstag is in German and is written for wind ensemble, brass players, organ, and percussionists of varying types.

I know just a little bit about the Licht cycle, but that is just enough to not want to spend time and mental bandwidth on studying up on it. There is no shortage of academic blowhards writing theses on the genius of Stockhausen, and I’ve always found that the more long and unbearable his musical works, the longer and more tedious the dissertations on them will be. Even if I could get through one of those essays without falling asleep in the first 15 footnotes, I wouldn’t waste the time on it because if a work of musical art can’t support my interest without me burning a weekend of study to understand it then I say take the score and throw it to the pigs.

My time is valuable. This opera is over 3 hours long and my strong intuition tells me that I have to have the thing on a short leash. So to save my time and to give a spontaneous, honest review I will give a blow by blow account, writing in real time as I watch.

Under the opening credits the overture or whatever it’s called is played by a brass ensemble. It’s very unique and interesting brass writing, string tubas and horns combine with trombones in almost constant glissando mode. The feeling of powerful unease draws me in. This might not be so bad after all.

I may have spoken too soon.

Some guy in a crow costume comes out and lurks around the stage a bit. It’s not quite a crow costume, it looks like a big styrofoam crow-shaped head thing painted black atop a guy wearing overalls with feathers attached with the torso left open to show off the player’s toned hairy chest. Like the kind of costume you might have seen on one of the members of The Village People if hookup sex with enormous crow-men had somehow been added to the pantheon of gay fetishes.

After a few minutes Mr. Crow takes his head off the costume to reveal he is not a giant crow but a bearded dude with a bunch of eyeliner. As the title of these four movements all reference “Lucifer”, I assume from his black getup that this crow dude must be him.

He goes over to a grand piano and jimmies with the strings a bit before playing a few sour chords. Looking up from the keyboard, he calls in an operatic bass voice for someone named Alphonse.

This Alphonse drifts onto the stage from the wings. He’s got some weird Marilyn Manson look going – heavy eyeliner, hair spiked up into tufts and a black cape – and plays some disjointed abstract piano piece while Mr. Crow / Lucifer sits nearby in the shadows with a dazed expression. After a time they start singing, chanting numbers out of sequence to each other.

Then Alphonse, who may be a real concert pianist or may be some art nerd playing random flourishes and chords – with Stockhausen one never knows – hisses and sighs audibly as he fools about on the keys. Mr. Crow puts on his head again and resumes some kind of dialogue with Alphonse. Some of this is subtitled and some is not, and when there are subtitles they are in French. I know enough French to get it but when it’s abstract stuff like a couple of art hippies chanting random words at each other what does it matter anyway.

I’m already arguing with myself about the merits of continuing to watch. Trying to be a good patron of the arts by saying: Hey what’s not to like? It’s different, it’s surreal, it’s trippy, why not just give in to it and say it’s art for art’s sake? The things I often tell myself when immersed in a challenging music work or live performance.

The problem is that what I have described above took 40 minutes to transpire. I am thinking what I might have done with that 40 minutes. There are great pop albums, great symphonies, brilliantly written articles that I could have consumed that take about the much time to experience. What gives Stockhausen the right to heist me for 40 minutes of my time to show me this big load of nothing?

But I persevere…

Scene 2: LUCIFER’S REQUIEM [00:40:00]
This scene opens with a solo flautist and hippie percussionists combining on playing some kind of cathartic new age gooby-gobby. Actually sounds pretty good, I like that kind of thing sometimes; but I bet if old Karl was still alive to read this he would despair that the music he plotted out to be so disturbing would in the 21st century be like something you might hear over that mini Bluetooth speaker at your massage therapist’s office.

As the flautist huffs and puffs and trills away some animations play on a screen above the heads of her and the players. That was kind of cool. The images were of music staves in a circle with some kind of squiggly motion graphics in the center. I didn’t get the significance but it was an interesting touch.

More wind instruments like bird calls and whistles chime in as a few non-musicians (or musicians who have gone rogue and put their instruments down in the middle of a performance, I’m not really sure) move about the stage carrying what look like brass plates with random crude images on them. The images look like prehistoric cave paintings if German art students had roamed the earth 30,000 years ago, and had lived in those caves. I could not divine the significance of these plates or why the women – clad in identical burgundy leotards and sequined pants – seemed so serenely happy to be toting them around and hanging them on galvanized steel rods suspended by dirty ropes.

At this point Stockhausen is into me for an hour of my time. Feeling antsy to say the least.

Meanwhile the gals with the brass plates have left the stage. The painted brass plates are just hanging there in the dark. I still don’t know what that was all about.

Moving in and out of the shadows now we see a few percussion players with thumb pianos and tam-tam drums and brass bowls other noisemaking gewgaws hanging from their costumes.

Could only 5 minutes have passed? Only Stockhausen can make 5 minutes seem like a 5-day workweek.

The flautist has again returned to center stage and the animations on the screen above her have returned with her. I have literally no idea what all that I have seen so far in this second scene has to do with providing a requiem for Mr. Crow / Lucifer.

Scene 3: LUCIFER’S DANCE [1:20:00}
An expanded orchestra appears on stage, above the stage, and behind the stage. The lighting is dark, it’s hard to see exactly how everything is put together. The music now sounds more fleshed out as in the overture, and as with the overture, I like this musical sequence. The flutes and clarinets play a taut, sustained rhythm with baritone saxes tooting out a nervous trilling underpinning. The musicians are all dressed in white and do moves in sync like a stiff version of James Brown’s horn section, The JB’s.

Mr. Crow / Lucifer is back. He forgot his head again. He sings a few lines over the wind music in a more traditional operatic style as projected hippie shaman graphics are projected all over the place. His sharp basso singing is intended to come off as unhinged, attempting the type of crazy done to perfection by Klaus Kinski in film. But try as I might I don’t find him scary, he just looks like a queen in feathered overalls.

A trumpet player with gold face paint comes center stage and plays some extended solo over the orchestra for about 10 minutes.

The flautist returns again. This time she is standing triumphantly on a platform that’s been brought out to center stage while some person of indeterminate sex wrapped in a finely tailored jumbo Hefty bag is below her and being held back by a couple of art students with a long sheet of mylar. The music is suitably unsettled and quietly chaotic. Mr. Crow / Lucifer comments by singing cryptically and sporadically from his perch in the shadows.

Mr. Crow / Lucifer is in the front of the stage now. I’m wondering if he’s finally going to start earning his grant euros and really sing for a spell. But he mostly just stands there. I kind of liked the crow head and want him to put it back on but that doesn’t happen. It was probably too hot and humid in there and his eyeliner was running.

Scene 4: LUCIFER’S FAREWELL [02:11:00]
Another hour to go. This thing is really dragging out. Still hanging in there but multitasking, surfing the web looking for just the right EU law firm who might represent me as plaintiff when I sue the Stockhausen Institute for pain and suffering.

As the last scene begins – whoa, where are we? They seem to have changed the performance venue. Either that or it’s a mighty nifty set change. It does look like we are in a big church or cathedral now. So it becomes plain that this really is a film produced over several days in several locations, and is not filmed document of a single live performance. Probably staged for audiences in different locations on different days.

The choir is dressed up in friar’s robes and they are filing into the church singing this kind of meeting between midieval music and modern polyharmony. This Neo-Gregorian chant drone is supported by other music added to the mix. It’s very ambient and seems to be taking advantage of the natural acoustics of the building. Not a bad sound, it goes on for about 6 minutes while the monks or whatever they are file in.

The camera keeps cutting back to a real live crow – the actual size of a crow this time – in a cage on an altar. A priest sings a few lines to him before the monks go back to their drone ambient chanting.

The monks are assembled, muttering in some organized fashion, and have tambourines that they shake sometimes. Some higher white-robed clerics are standing beside the crow cage as he is stirring inside. Could it actually be that the priests have put some Jesus hex on Mr. Crow / Lucifer and reduced him down to real crow size? Maybe the promoters were pissed off that the he couldn’t remember his lines and keeps taking his crow head off, and now they’re keeping him locked up till he fulfills his contract.

More guys in white robes show up. The ones at the altar are singing to the crow.

The monks are on the move. They are now jogging around the church where the audience is seated while singing their goddamn murky chants. Brian Eno’s “Music For Monasteries”? It’s cold oatmeal for the ears. I’m really bored with these hippie monks now, no matter how fast they trot along.

Good god still 20 minutes to go. Fuck it, this is torture, I’m skipping ahead.

Most of the monks are drifting outside to the doorway of the church. There’s another audience out there too, assembled before the steps at the entrance. One of the monks stayed inside to commiserate with the crow but most of the performers are gone from the interior and it’s plain this thing is finally starting to wind down. The monks outside are now have produced some coconuts and are dramatically raising them over their heads and smashing them on the stone steps before the audience. They then up the pieces and hand them around as some kind of dada-esque sacrament to the spectators.

Coconuts. I have absolutely no idea what smashing coconuts on the steps of a European church has to do with anything, but then I gave up on finding anything lucid in Samstag two hours ago. After distributing the shards of coconut all monks and the white robed clerics all run away down the street as the screen slowly fades to black.

Finally. Over. Selah. I am soooo happy to see the credits rolling, with at least part of my day still ahead of me.

Despite the rain of ruin on my patience, I am glad I saw Samstag and experienced a piece of Licht, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s major operatic opus. When you spend enough time outside the avant-garde music world it’s good to give yourself a refresher. Other than a smattering of harmonically interesting instrumental music, there isn’t anything in Samstag that was transcendent or even the least bit interesting to me – though I’m sure that if I confessed this to some associate professor in modern music at some Stuttgart musikakademie they would tell me what a dummkopf I am for not being thrilled by this whole affair.

There are Stockhausen apologists hiding under rocks everywhere who will emerge to tell the world how deep and amazing his music and vision is. Adding this 3-hour performance to what I’ve already heard of his music, I have to say I don’t buy into any of that. If any work of art needs to be supported by some Oxford Dictionary-sized essay to explain it all to the ignorant mass then I call it bogus. Any one of us can write bad poetry or bad novels or unlistenable music and say that if you don’t get it then you’re not deep enough or whatever. I can love anarchic or strange or futuristic concepts as much as anyone, and I don’t wish that musical artists only dedicate themselves to easily understandable creations. But there’s a point where I have to trust in my resistance to something so impenetrable that it has me constantly gritting my teeth in frustration.

But hell – I can also say live and let live. If someone wants to put on a show starring some Sesame Street vision of Lucifer supported by a dressing room full of scruffy looking singing friars while an enormous bunch of music grad students play an “eventless” score to the whole mess then I say go for it. Caw!