It’s Apocalyse Now meets opera meets a Sixties’ happening.
An airborne string quartet will swoop over central Birmingham in a fleet of helicopters to perform one of opera’s most ambitious and “mind-boggling” sequences.
Birmingham Opera Company will stage the world premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s spectacular Mittwoch (Wednesday) in an old chemical plant in Digbeth as part of this summer’s Olympics arts festival.
It will be the first time all six parts of Mittwoch, the final section of Stockhausen’s epic opera cycle Licht (Light), have been staged together.
The opera combines live electronic and acoustic music, two choirs and the flying quartet, whose performances above the city will be transmitted by cameras and microphones back to the audience on terra firma. The roar of the rotor blades will form an integral part of the soundscape.
The five-hour show will be staged as part of the London 2012 Festival, the culmination of the nation’s Cultural Olympiad.
It is one of the national highlights of the 12-week festival, which runs from June 21 until the final day of the Paralympic Games on September 9, and will surely go down as one of the most daring and outlandish operatic projects undertaken.
Olympic gold medallist Jonathan Edwards, deputy chairman of London 2012’s Nations and Regions Group, unveiled the summer’s programme of cultural events for the West Midlands at a launch at Birmingham Hippodrome.
The festival includes The Voyage, in which a giant ship will be built in Victoria Square for a late-night dance spectacular involving 140 performers. An opening night concert, Weltethos, will be performed by the CBSO at Symphony Hall on 21 June.
However, Mittwoch is undoubtedly the star attraction of the line-up.
The fact such an elaborate and complex project has been entrusted to Birmingham Opera Company, this year celebrating its 25th anniversary, is being hailed as a boost for the city’s cultural credibility.
Stockhausen’s opera will be performed four times from August 22-25 at the Argyle Works, an old industrial space in Digbeth.
Graham Vick, artistic director of Birmingham Opera Company, is still working on the staging and admitted the opera was “mind-bending and visionary.”
Mr Vick said: “Stockhausen’s vision is of course utterly, utterly beguiling, seductive, irresistible and fabulous, one of the great originals of all time, a dreamer, a visionary, a man who dared to believe things were possible which I have no idea how to achieve.”
Jean Nicholson, general manager of Birmingham Opera Company, said Mittwoch had a “strangely broad appeal.”
She said: “A lot of the indie music scene are into Stockhausen because he was a pioneer of electronic music and there is a lot of electronic music in Mittwoch. It is hardly a conventional opera. It is more of a happening.”
The helicopter sequence represents a staging and technological challenge.
Ms Nicholson said: “The idea is that the players are in their individual helicopters and the sound will be relayed between helicopters and back to the audience in the hall.
There is a musical raison d’etre to it because the players will work with the sound of the rotor blades. In a way, the helicopters are part of the musical instrument.”
Asked if the project was a health and safety nightmare, Ms Nicholson said: “No comment.”
But she said there were plenty of open spaces for the helicopters to land in the Digbeth area.
Tickets are expected to be £50 and Birmingham Opera Company is exploring concessionary prices. The event will also be shown on The Space – a digital service available via the internet, smartphones, tablets and smart TVs.
Stockhausen’s long-time collaborator Kathinka Pasveer has been appointed music director and the line includes Birmingham’s Ex Cathedra and London Voices. Radio 1 DJ Nihal will provide a commentary on the performance and take questions from the audience for the musicians and helicopter pilots.
Stockhausen, who died in 2007, revolutionised classical music by embracing electronic music. The seven-opera cycle Licht marks each day of the week and Mittwoch was the only part he never saw staged.
Stockhausen said: “We have individual scenes from Mittwoch Aus Licht in very good concert performances. But all attempts to stage Mittwoch Aus Licht have not been successful. I do not want the opera performance to be incomplete.”
The Birmingham production is being funded by Arts Council England and Birmingham City Council.
Council leader Mike Whitby said: “When the eyes of the world are on the UK, this will be an excellent showcase for Birmingham’s world leading culture and creative sector.”
More than 70 arts and cultural events will take place as part of the Cultural Olympiad in the West Midlands.
The World Shakespeare Festival will be held in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Spill will feature street dance performances created especially for playground equipment. Dancing for the Games will put dance at the heart of the celebrations with events in Hereford, Worcester, Stafford, Coventry and Birmingham.