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Published in Carnet, october 1998; the original Dutch text somehow has disappeared

The tragedy of a microphone sawed in half


It would seem that every composer in the Netherlands has the ambition of writing an opera. Frits van der Waa introduces leading composers in the field and concludes that in the most authentic examples of music theatre the role of music has all but vanished.
The premiere of Otto Ketting's Ithaca on 23 September 1986 marked the opening of Amsterdam's Muziektheater, the new opera building whose coming had been disputed for nearly half a century. The choice of a new Dutch opera for such an important and festive occasion was nothing less than a statement. And has De Nederlandse Opera indeed championed home-grown opera since then? Taking stock of the past dozen seasons produces a modest list: Ithaca by Otto Ketting, De Materie by Louis Andriessen, the one-act Gassir, The Hero by Theo Loevendie, Symposion by Peter Schat, Rosa, another Andriessen work, and Noach by Guus Janssen.

That amounts to a new Dutch opera every two years for De Nederlandse Opera. Not exactly prolific, one might think, but the list does include a few of the high points in post-war Dutch opera history, apparent from the fact that three of the six productions were later reprised. And although never repeated in scenic form, Louis Andriessen's De Materie from 1988 is certainly deserving of such. De Materie is not an opera, but a four-part music theatre work in which the composer establishes countless cross-links between music, other branches of the arts, science, and the history of his native soil. Each part features its own protagonist (Gorlaeus, Hadewych, Mondrian and Madame Curie, in that order), but there is no plot to speak of, rather the execution of ritualistic action. The collaboration with the American director Bob Wilson (whose name went up in lights for Einstein on the Beach) resulted in a production of cool but penetrating beauty. Andriessen's next major theatre work, Rosa, a Horse Drama from 1994, directed and set to a libretto by Peter Greenaway, was altogether different. Rosa is more of an opera than De Materie but, that said, far from a conventional opera. To accompany Greenaway's visual conjuring (in which film footage flowed seamlessly into live acting and vice versa) Andriessen composed a rivallingly licentious score, full of arch allusions and stylistic citations, but nonetheless carrying a great dramatic charge. Andriessen and Greenaway had teamed up earlier, in M is for Man, Music, Mozart, a made-for-television film from 1991 that, despite not being a stage production, must certainly be categorized as 'music theatre'. Equally unconventional, but in an entirely different vein, was Guus Janssen's Noach, set to a libretto by Friso Haverkamp. This production was performed at the 1994 Holland Festival, with Pierre Audi directing. The costumes and decors by visual artist Karel Appel, which drew crowds in their own right, were particularly effeclive in this bizarre inverted version of the Bible story, in which Noach was intent on exterminating as many species as possible. But most remarkable of all was the successful synthesis Janssen managed to achieve between composed and improvised music – a blend comprised not only of his own ensemble, but of electronic aids and a quartet of Tuvanian overtone singers. Janssen and Haverkamp are now preparing to launch their next opera, entitled Hier°. At the end of next year De Nederlandse Opera will mount Writing to Vermeer, the next project for the Andriessen/Greenaway duo.

Makeshift solutions

As of yet, the two remaining Dutch opera companies, De Nationale Reisopera and Opera Zuid, have not featured any Dutch performances, save a new staging of Peter Schat's 'comic strip opera' Aap verslaat de Knekelgeest (Monkey Subdues the Bone-Demon), a small-but-effervescent music theatre piece from 1980. The Holland Festival, long a significant factor in the realm of Durch opera, adopted a new signature as of this year by shifting the accent to theatre. Possibly this will spark new work in the area of music theatre, but in all probability, Robert Heppener's Een ziel van hout (Soul of Wood), based on the novella by Jakov Lind (1998), was the last Holland Festival opera. What made this work particularly interesting was the close collaboration between director Monique Wagemakers and TV director Jellie Dekker. The opera is situated in Nazi Germany, but takes place partially in an enchanting dream world. The dream scenes were set in a virtual video decor populated by live filmed images of the singers – a successful application of computer technology because it was so sublimely suited to theatre.

In previous years the Holland Festival has presented such works as Esmée by Theo Loevendie and Jan Blokker, a pure-blooded opera about a Resistance heroine who begins an affair with a German officer. Esmée was also a great success in Germany. The same was true of Rob Zuidam's Freeze, about little-rich-girl-gone-awry Patricia Hearst. A rather remarkable production was Klaas de Vries' A King, Riding (1996), after The Waves by Virginia Woolf. The abstraction and ambiguity in Woolf's text – in which one person comes to inhabit six characters comparable to the heteronyms of Fernando Pessoa served as inspiration for De Vries' extraordinarily subtle music theatre work in which the elusiveness of the subject material was further accentuated by clever use of electronic music. The Holland Festival additionally serves as a safety net for operas that don't make it to the stage. In 1997, for instance, it staged a concertante performance of Wim Laman's Agamemnon. Scheduled for next year is a performance of Klas Torstensson's Expeditionen, also in concert form. These are indeed makeshift solutions, and particularly embarrassing in Torstensson's case, as plans for a Swedish/Dutch effort seemed fully made, but at the last minute came to a screeching halt.

Striptease

In addition to its official opera producers, the Netherlands has many smaller activities in the realm of opera and music theatre to offer. The Dutch, after all, are prolific composers. And each of these composers, it would seem, has the ambition of writing at least one opera during his lifetime – even if only a chamber opera. Perhaps it is telling that the two performances I recall most vividly were for youngsters. Dutch children's theatre has shown strong developments in recent years, and from time to time a company will try its luck at opera. Teneeter, for instance, put a production of Rumpelstiltskin on the boards in 1995, putting a new spin on the Grimm fairy tale. The alternating spoken parts and musical sections were fortified by Imme Dros' concise text and the melodious, madrigalian music of Bernard van Beurden. During the same period Rotterdam's RO Theater played Pinocchio, a colourful vivid, visually pleasing performance with full-production scoring by Patricio Wang. Honesty compels me to admit that my own children (aged 8 and 6 at the time) were considerably more taken by the spectacle of Pinocchio than with the artistically more pretentious Rumpelstiltskin by Teneeter, and that I could not really blame them.

Indeed, music theatre encompasses more than opera alone. The question is: where does it end? If composer Cornelis de Bondt creates a rendition of his work Singing the Faint Farewell that includes a (rather chaste, by the way) striptease – a symbol of the naked state to which death reduces us all – is this music theatre? And a performance by Michel Waisvisz and his Hands – two ingeniously constructed panels with buttons and sensors affixed to the wrists and connected to a computer that responds to the actions and movemcnts of the player – is that also music theatre?

Loony bin

If we disregard the category 'music with theatrical aspects', we are left with but few examples of music theatre in the purest sense, i.e. performances offering musical and theatrical components in equal measure (I am disregarding dance performances here). Theatergroep Hollandia, however, has put in a good show in this category, specifically since Paul Koek, percussionist by profession, took over directing duties. Hollandia always performs on sites of its own choice. In 1988 the group chose the Psychiatrisch Centrum Vogelenzang in which to play Bethlehem Hospital by Huib Emmer and Ken Hollings, an opera set in a notorious London loony bin. Five years later, Hollandia could be seen on the Scheveningen fish market playing M is muziek, monoloog, moord, an adaptation of the earlier-mentioned work which Louis Andriessen composed for the Greenaway film. The musical segments were alternated by monologues (written by Lodewijk de Boer) inspired by the figure Medea, causing music and acting to compliment one another rather than meld. This summer, for the occasion of The Hague's 750th anniversary, Hollandia staged an unadulterated costume drama by the name of Oldenbarneveldt. This Dutch history play was provided with a splendid score by a collective of four composers (Louis Andriessen, Martijn Padding, Paul Koek and Florentijn Boddendijk). This time the chosen site was the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague, a stone's throw from the very spot where the Dutch Statesman Oldenbarneveldt was beheaded in 1619.

But the great, inimitable explorer in the music theatre genre is Dick Raaijmakers, born in 1930, who in the 1950s blazed new trails in electronic music, after which he continued to gradually expand his field of research. Through the years he realised various projects, many of which were performed but once, in which the exploration of mechanics (sound as well as visual components) figured prominently. Peculiarly, most of the results of Raaijmakers' 'art of dissection' could hardly be perceived as music. One telling example is Intona, a performance during which the composer, like a scientist in a laboratory, silences twelve microphones in twelve different ways – by incineration, taking the saw to them, by boiling, crushing them beneath a heavy object and so on – during which the microphones bore testimony to their own destruction. The curious aspect here is that what appeared to be senseless clinical actions not only undermined the self-evident notion that a microphone is always a conductor of sound, but even embodied a certain tragedy. Like no other, Raaijmakers was able to put his finger on mortality and on the unrepeatable beauty of that single moment that is essential to music, to theatre, and even more so to the miraculous connection between the two.


© Frits van der Waa 2007