There must have been few people left in Birmingham who had failed to hear that an opera was coming their way. During the past week the skies over the city centre had been buzzing as helicopters flew round and round rehearsing one of the most unlikely “scenes” ever to appear in an opera – a helicopter string quartet.
Is it any surprise that Mittwoch aus Licht has had to wait 17 years for its full stage premiere? Karlheinz Stockhausen, the brilliantly original and always controversial German composer, who died in 2007, conceived his cycle Licht on a wilfully perverse scale: seven operas, one for each day of the week, totalling 29 hours of music and with instructions to the director that must leave him wondering whether to laugh or cry. You thought Wagner took opera to the limit when he put the end of the world on stage in Götterdämmerung? Think again.
One by one, over the years, each of the days of Licht has made it to the stage, but Mittwoch (“Wednesday”) has eluded capture – until now. Spurred on by the Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival, Birmingham Opera Company has taken up the challenge, creating its own interpretation of the Olympic ideal – in this case “bigger, longer, stranger”.
Stockhausen’s scheme describes Mittwoch as “the day of spatial phantasms”. What that might mean is anybody’s guess, but at least it leaves options open. Birmingham Opera Company chose to invite its audience out to the city’s disused Argyle Works, handed out felt mats, and trusted that six hours sat cross-legged on the floor or staring up at the ceiling would transport them to Stockhausen’s universe of the mind.
Two of the opera’s hour-long scenes worked very well. “World Parliament” involved the chorus as international delegates, each sitting on top of a ladder in a grand circle with the audience in the middle, singing music of extreme complexity in multiple languages. The Ex Cathedra choir, directed by Jeffrey Skidmore, were brilliant. The “Helicopter String Quartet” came across musically as an hour of unrelenting scratchy noise, but the fact that it had been successfully done as the composer demanded – the four members of the Elysian Quartet were sent up in four separate helicopters and cameras relayed their performances down to the audience on four screens in the hall – was a feat in itself.
It all felt very 1960s. Drop in, lie down, tune out. A lot of Mittwoch involves electronic sounds and performance art. The nine solo musicians who played high up on trapezes did a heroic job, and one can forgive the director, Graham Vick, for passing over stage directions such as “a market-place in Marrakech, zebras, lions, horses”. In such a vast work, perhaps, it did not matter that there were long stretches that were boring or puzzling. Vick’s imagination seemed to wane towards the end, and the whole of the last scene, “Michaelion”, staged at the end of the hall, seemed distant and indecipherable. Did anybody have a clue what was going on? Did anybody care?
It seems clear from everything that Stockhausen wrote about Licht that he intended it to be an outpouring of the ego on an intergalactic scale. Vick’s Mittwoch was not like that at all. With its grungy atmosphere, its band of extras sitting among the audience, its sense of a local community experience borne on enthusiasm and a dash of humour, the brave and enterprising Birmingham Opera Company brought Licht down to earth – apart from the helicopters, of course.