Performing the unperformable: Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht in Birmingham

27 08 2012

Thought for the day

“Opera in a greeting, four scenes and a farewell for 9 musical performers, choir with singing conductor, orchestra, a synthesizer player, 2 dance-mimes, electronic music (tapes), sound projectionist”

…plus a helicopter string quartet.

When we first heard about the intention of the Birmingham Opera Company to put on a complete performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s never before performed opera Mittwoch aus Licht we were intrigued. To be honest, we thought it sounded a ridiculous spectacle with unlistenable music but an event that should be experienced. We were right about it being an important experience but completely wrong about the rest: the music was varied, moving, exciting and funny.


It is all rather odd that we bought tickets for an opera, given that we don’t actually like opera. I have tried and have been to both traditional and modern operas at the ENO but opera is when we change Radio 3 for 6Music. We do, however, like classical music (contemporary & modern), electronica, experimental, rock, post-rock (and what ever label we are using now for weird-shit music). It turned out that approaching it from the modern/electronic music spectrum was better preparation than treating it as opera.

It was also more helpful to think of it less like ‘opera’ and more like a ‘city festival’, with its wristbands, merchandise table, porta-loos, temporary bar, long queues for Indian food in a tent, rain (but no mud) and a disused factory; much more Supersonic than Glyndebourne.

Wednesday Greeting
Awaiting the audience

A big empty warehouse with, in the centre of the space, a liberal scattering of tiny stools.
Near the door two perfectly groomed Bactrian camels, standing so still that I disappointedly assumed them to be fakes.
People milling around looking a little uncertain.

The production takes place in what were the two giant warehouses of the now empty MacDermid Canning site in Digbeth. We are greeted by the sight of hundreds of camping stools and four giant screens in the corners of the building. The audience takes their seats and the lights go out.

Five hundred people sitting quietly in the dark. Listening. Breathing. All but eighty of them wondering what happens next.
Sounds. Lovelier than expected. Alive as they move around the space.
Tiny lights way overhead. Holes in the factory roof?
Sudden lights. Tableaux.

There then follows haunting and disturbing electronic music in the dark but with occasional spotlighting of people arriving for the parliament; people climbing walls, others sitting in forests, crowds moving through the building, a figure writing on a high office window and a spider-like creature that appeared to be creating the delegates.

Athletic young men scaling the walls, having a loud, noiseless argument. Adopting poses of studied, arrogant nonchalance.
Figures rising from the audience with outstretched arms. Moving towards. Something. Light. Sound.
God. On a TV screen. Or really there, at the high, high window. Lecturing. Explaining everything. Incomprehensible.
All the women in the world, all hugely pregnant, processing inexorably towards the men.
Flash foward? Flash back? Heading for apocalypse or surviving it?
An old woman sitting motionless, but for her hands which knit a vast writhing mass that births humans.
Dancing. Umbrellas that become radio dishes. Are they hearing the same thing The Audience hears? Strange. Soothing. Unifying.

All very effective – with clear and precise sound – and as the light slowly returns we are effortlessly guided next door.

Everyone rises. We’re a whole now. Moving together like. Them. Moving towards the light of a single doorway. Shuffling, but knowing we’re doing the right thing. Knowing that we’re no longer spectators.

The order of the Greeting

World Parliament
awaiting the World Parliament

Another vast space. A crazy paving of grey foam mats on a grey concrete floor. Surrounding, encircling, impossibly tall chairs in crayon yellow. A man with painted face ushers us all in.
Other people, all with painted faces, file in and take their places on the chairs.
The faces are flags. There’s Canada. Pakistan. Is that Greece?

We arrive in the world parliament chamber; an oval formed of high yellow step-ladder chairs (manufactured by a local firm I hope?) surrounding the audience sitting/lying on rectangular foam mats. The delegates slowly arrive, all dressed formally with faces painted in the flags of their country, both real and imaginary. We are then treated – and it really was a treat – to a debate about love sung by the members of Ex Cathedra, lead and commented on by the President (Ben Thapa).

Sitting up there amongst the clouds they start to sing. It’s glorious. They debate, argue, suggest. They begin to writhe and take off clothes. Some of these countries really like each other. Those deep voices over there give me goosebumps.

As the debate gets more and more passionate the delegates smear their face paint to become part of the world rather than individual countries. Musically this was probably the most impressive part as whilst I don’t like opera I do like large vocal works. The voices were universally excellent, with the President even able to Tweet during the session, before being called away to rescue his illegally parked car and be replaced by another delegate.

In the end it doesn’t matter that the leader is called away, because one of the other countries takes his place and slowly, steadily, working together, they achieve an accord. They reach out. Literally. Holding hands from chair to chair. And when they descend to earth, they shake hands with The Audience.

I am the President of the World

[First interval, in which we find they do have sufficient toilets for 500 people and very bad coffee]

Orchestra Finalists
Is this safe?

After the interval we return to the same room. But it’s a different space. Musicians dangle from the ceiling. There’s a cello and violins. A bassoon. And.
We lie on the blue mats, underneath the double bass.
It’s a relaxed carnival atmosphere. Lots of people laughing, taking photographs.

We return to what was the parliament building, now transformed into an open area with rows of blue mats for the audience to lie on and look up at the orchestra, each member of which was suspended on a trapeze. Things then just get more and more weird.

The largely perspex swings that the musicians sit on move up and down. The music moves between them too.
The trumpet, in his safari outfit, descends almost to the earth. The trombone swaps places with a swimmer – the latter ascends to observe from the ceiling while the former plays and splashes and pratfalls in an inflatable paddling pool that glides over The prone Audience. Cosmicomic.
One of the musicians throws playing cards that flutter to earth.
The double bass descends, ceding his swing to an astronaut. Like the trombone he glides over our heads, playing, yelling, being all manner of things.

Cast members are attacked by bees, birds fly overhead, aeroplanes are directed around the building. Musically the highlights are the Double Bass (Jeremy Watt) who is replaced on his trapeze by an astronaut and push on a platform over our heads, and the Trombone (Andrew Connington) who who takes a splash in a padding pool.

At ground level, demanding we divide our attention, there are people. They strike yoga poses. Or maybe they’re doing obeisance. They are beset by insects and try to protect us from them. Two undertakers process with great dignity and smoke issuing from their stovepipe hats. There’s only one mummy. And only one figure with a model aeroplane on his head.
Again there are umbrellas. Some of them shield us, but I dont know from what. I begin to regret that I’m still earthbound – lying down, as earthbound as can be – when all the music and the cool stuff is happening up there.

The piece is funny, engaging and inclusive but perhaps more memorable for the spectacle than the music which is somewhat episodic.

for all astronauts

Helicopter String Quartet
Cello above the city

Quickly, they urge us. The helicopters are waiting.

We return to the camping stools for the centrepiece of the production: the helicopter string quartet to be played by the Elysian Quartet. This appears to be a somewhat odd format for the middle of a ‘concert’ as we have an introduction by the Radio 1 presenter DJ Nihal followed by a reality-style drive to the helicopters for the music. This is then followed by a Q&A with the Elysian Quartet (but not the pilots as they had to take the helicopters – from Arena Aviation – away from the terrible weather). This again made the event feel more like a day-long festival than a single performance.

The introduction and Q&A had the potential to be just awful but turned out to be both interesting and informing, putting the music in context and explaining the technology and feelings involved. This was a success for three reasons; 1) DJ Nihal was a relaxed and enthusiastic host, 2) the Elysian Quartet were as intelligent and engaging as their playing, 3) interesting and well articulated questions from the audience.

Four people in vests the yellow of Wednesday. They look so ordinary, so real, but they’re here to be extraordinary, to ascend in helicopters and, each alone in the sky, unite in performing the helicopter quartet.
They rush off, and their short journey is transmitted back to The Audience. It’s reality TV, so it feels less real than any of the other things we’ve experienced here.

Some reviews have been less than complementary about this section and from the video of the preview I can understand why, as all appear stilted and nervous. By the Friday performance all those involved were much more comfortable with each other and the audience, possibly assisted by the thought of near-death from the quartet due to the terrible weather! The pressure on DJ Nihal must have been immense, taking the role intended for Stockhausen himself and in front of 500 potential critics. I was impressed by how he conducted himself and managed this difficult segment.

Once they’re airborne and start to play, the music makes it real again. True.
There’s a screen in each of the upper corners of the cube of sound that contains The Audience. One screen for each of the quartet. The music moves between them. I learn to stop blocking the sound of the rotors and hear it as an integral part of the piece.

The musical part has also been criticised in reviews (see, for example, Andrew Clement’s otherwise complementary Guardian review) but I found it mesmerising with the interaction of the strings, rotors and voices creating a unique soundscape. You can watch the segment and buy a CD of a 2008 performance but this was all about the individual experience, greatly assisted by the Sound Projector Ian Dearden.

They return to earth and to us. They talk about their experiences. The Audience questions them and the information we learn, practical and spiritual, retrospectively becomes part of the music too.

Yes it was spiritual

[Second interval, in which we find they do not have sufficient catering for 500 people but do have Purity Ubu ale]

Camel dance

Back again to that other space, the one that’s big enough to hold the World Parliament and suspend musicians. Now it just holds the grey foam mats and a distressingly bright light.
And then singers.
They push a platform forward into The Audience. Close to us, but not too close.

For the finale we are again on foam mats in the second space but this time, more conventionally, with a small stage at one end. As we sit we realise we are not the only ones come to see the election of a new World President, as around us are delegates in black formal-wear, splashed with yellow, sitting in rapture. This section is perhaps the most musically conventional for modern opera with London Voices singing with a small brass section plus synthesiser.

And finally Lucicamel enters, walking through The Audience, heading straight for us, and we’ve no place to go. Lucicamel takes evasive action and falls on my legs. Lucicamel is candidate for President of the World and it shits planets; somehow, I imagined it would be heavier. It rises and continues its progress to the platform where its hooves are burnished and it does indeed shit planets.
The singers, black-clad and each splashed with Mittwoch yellow, sing and leap and run and listen to the translated messages of a portable radio.

The plot is, in a word; bonkers. We have a planet-shitting camel called Lucicamel who gets drunk on champagne and dances with a trombonist before giving birth to the new World President who is receiving cryptic messages from a short-wave radio. Of all the sections this was the only one that felt slightly too long but was still interesting and the brass was excellent.

With a planet in my hand

Wednesday Farewell
voice of the intuition

It concludes with peace. Harmony. A sense of catharsis.

We slowly vacate the space to subtle electronic sounds and the delegates wordlessly extolling us with slogans towards a better world.

We’ve seen something huge. Cosmic. Too big to comprehend, even in snatches.
Back on earth, there are messages on placards and on some level they make sense.

But into what?

The End
At the end

We gather together to celebrate the event; the audience, the singers, the musicians, the cast and the crew. Suitably enthusiastic applause is given to all and we drift off home, with a buzz that the rain cannot disperse.


There are many, many other reports/reviews but there are two we would highlight. The first is from Nick Richardson in the London Review of Books and is perhaps the one most aligned with our experience. He concludes with:

“The 36 delegates collaborate, despite themselves, in harmonious hubbub; sounds collaborate with each other to create new sounds: the strings with the chopper blades, the sounds of the trapezes with field recordings; and the helicopter string quartet manage to stay together despite the longest odds. And of course just staging the thing is a major feat of co-operation, as BOC’s curtain call, at which cast members outnumber audience members, makes clear. That this unpretentious company can swing through one of modern music’s most intimidating frontiers, and do so with such gritty panache, is remarkable. Luzicamel kosmisch Geräusch Galaxiescheich!”

The second review is from Leo Chadburn in The Quietus, a blog that more normally covers rock/alt music (written for, er, people like us) and his conclusion is:

“Not only has everyone involved in this piece staged the unstageable, they’ve done it with generosity, understatement and humility. I don’t imagine anyone who saw this event will forget it anytime soon. More than that, it would be nice to think that this project goes someway to dispelling the idea of Stockhausen as a formidably unapproachable and ridiculous figure. […] Or, at the very least, may it be an inspiration for everyone to start listening to the work of a master with fresh ears.”

We would also recommend that you view Pete Ashton’s pictures from one of the rehearsals which capture some of the energy and give an insight into some of the technical production including showing the Director Graham Vick. For photographs from a performance we would recommend the set from Katja Ogrin (who’s photographs are used in The Quietus review above).

Mittwoch aus Licht is yet another example of how Birmingham can put on exemplary, innovative arts events, to rank, for example, alongside Blast! (2007) and The Rice Show (2008). We can only speculate as to what comes next, but experience shows that it will be unexpected but wonderful.

This was an event that we felt privileged to be able to be part of. We may not like opera but we will now go to anything that Birmingham Opera Company produce (an effect known as ‘Stockhausen Syndrome). We will need no other information before buying a ticket. And who knows, we may even start to like opera.

Part score

Paul’s complete Mittwoch pictures can be found here and Elizabeth’s here.

— words by Paul & Elizabeth
— pictures by Paul & Elizabeth




3 responses

27 08 2012

Oh my God, that sounds amazing! I’ve only once had a similar theatrical experience (the staging of an “impossible” play called “Apollo” that will likely never be performed anywhere else again) so I have some idea of that feeling of having been part of a completely unique piece of art.

Terrific descriptions and photos and hey! I found your blog!

28 08 2012
Inversion Layer

It really was amazing, and I’m pleased that we managed to convey some of that. I think we’re still processing it.

The blog was dormant for a while, but we’ve been making a big effort this year.


9 03 2013

I kicked myself for not going to this (my 14th birthday present was tickets to go and see Stockhausen and the London Sinfonietta in the early 70s). Thanks for the links to the rehearsal photos though – they’re great. Just listening to Mittwochs-Gruss on Youtube now…

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