Live camels, a Radio 1 DJ, and a quartet of helicopters circling over central Birmingham: even before a single note had been played or sung, the sheer logistical effort involved in this world premiere production of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s six-hour Mittwoch aus Licht was astonishing.
Since Stockhausen completed Mittwoch (Wednesday) in 1997 as the third part of his week-long opera-cycle Licht, two major continental companies have attempted to produce it. Each failed. In Birmingham, in an achievement of international significance, we saw Graham Vick and the Birmingham Opera Company triumphantly succeed.
That success seems to have come from a combination of artistic vision and sheer, down-to-earth pragmatism. If Stockhausen’s vision of music-theatre as transforming mass ritual was a natural match for BOC’s community-led artistic mission, BOC’s hard-won experience in making imaginative use of large and unconventional spaces provided an ideal basis for meeting Stockhausen’s hallucinatory – and in many cases, frankly impossible – demands.
Making an orchestra hover above swimming pool full of elephants or depicting a galactic headquarters for delegates of the universe might not be physically achievable. But Vick understands exactly how to use his company’s practical know-how and his huge team of committed community performers to make us believe that they are. The cavernous Argyle Works – with their potential for staging different scenes in different spaces – made possible what would surely defeat any conventional theatre.
Mittwoch is in no sense an opera; it has no main characters, and only glimpses of a complex allegorical plot. But it does have music of transcendent beauty. The 50-minute opening Wednesday Greeting, realised in near-darkness on live electronics by the composer’s close collaborator Kathinka Pasveer led to World Parliament, a 40-minute a capella debate on the nature of love, sung by Ex Cathedra as radiantly and as animatedly as if it were Monteverdi.
It also has a deliciously loopy sense of humour. Orchestra Finalists found eleven orchestral musicians dangling at various heights from the ceiling, taking turns to perform bravura solos, and occasionally descending both to ground-level and to pure farce. The famous Helicopter String Quartet followed, with DJ Nihal bringing a refreshingly down-to-earth approach to the role of Moderator, while the Elysian Quartet launched themselves at Stockhausen’s airborne inventions with infectious zest. Technology and artistry came together to create something both extraordinary and joyous: it genuinely worked.
Only the penultimate sequence, Michaelion, proved problematic; here, in Stockhausen’s “galactic headquarters” the surreal comedy of a dancing, singing camel collided with vocal and instrumental writing of extraordinary complexity and Stockhausen’s personal mythology of St Michael and Lucifer at its most intense. There was no doubt that we were hearing superb performances of fiercely inspired music; but with the (already challenging) text sung entirely in German, this listener, at least, reeled into the closing electronic Wednesday Farewellwith his head throbbing.
And maybe that was an appropriate reaction: to the sheer ambition of the evening, to the magnificent quality of the performances, and to the overwhelming power of Stockhausen’s creative imagination. The fact remains that for four nights Birmingham Opera Company, its indefatigable manager Jean Nicholson, and Graham Vick put an old factory in Digbeth at the centre of the operatic world. That’s enough to leave anyone a little bit dizzy.