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An Operatic Conundrum Untangled

FTER a triumphant premiere at the New York Philharmonic in 1971, the story goes, the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was approached by a strange figure. Clad in a goatskin cape, carrying a staff and holding a thick book, the man stood out even amid the colorful throng of hippies and bohemians who had shown up to hear Stockhausen conduct his “Hymnen.” The stranger introduced himself, played a self-made flute and offered up the heavy tome under his arm, asking Stockhausen to become “the minister of sound transmission.”

So he did. The quasi-Christian mix of science and religion in “The Urantia Book” — the text Stockhausen bought from the wizardly figure — became the spiritual basis for a huge operatic cycle, “Licht” (“Light”). Written from 1977 to 2003, “Licht” exceeds even Wagner’s “Ring” cycle in its epic proportions, comprising seven full operas, one for each day of the week, and clocking in at 29 hours total.

Stockhausen died in 2007, without having seen “Licht” staged in its entirety. But his work has found new life at the Cologne Opera, which in recent weeks presented the culmination of the cycle, “Sonntag” (“Sunday”). To house the production the company built two theaters within the cavernous Staatenhaus am Rheinpark, part of the city’s exhibition center.

The local ensemble musikFabrik joined forces with the Catalan directorial team La Fura dels Baus and several longtime Stockhausen collaborators, including the flutist and electronics specialist Kathinka Pasveer and the conductor Peter Rundel. Although various scenes from “Sonntag” have been performed in concert, the Cologne performances constituted the premiere of the complete opera.

The long and difficult journey of “Licht” was paralleled by a steady diminishing of Stockhausen’s reputation; after a while even new-music aficionados tired of his narcissistic, singular devotion to the opaque theology of the operas. He retreated from public life and seemed to lose touch with reality: a condition confirmed by a misguided response to 9/11, in which he invoked the villain of “Licht” by calling the attacks a Luciferian masterwork, rousing widespread outrage.

But Stockhausen was a musical titan in the period after World War II, part of an artistic generation fanatically committed to innovation. Enormously influential at the Darmstadt summer courses in Germany, the unofficial headquarters of the avant-garde, he wrote music fueled by mathematical procedures and experimental rigor.

By the mid-1950s, starting with his electronic cantata “Gesang der Jünglinge” (“Song of the Youths”), Stockhausen began directing his scientific processes toward a spiritual plane. A Roman Catholic who rejoined the church in 1947 after the unofficial Nazi suppression, Stockhausen grew to embrace a plurality of religions. (In 1961 he excommunicated himself to pursue an extramarital affair with the painter Mary Bauermeister.) He considered himself “suprareligious,” worshiping equally gods of Christian, Buddhist, Aztec and Mayan cultures, which he once said were “all part of the face of a multifaceted universal spirit, of the total spirit.”

In the ’60s Stockhausen composed abstract, pointillist works alongside Cagean happenings, achieving the status of a cult hero among academics and rock legends alike. (His picture appears in the photo montage on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”) Toward the end of the decade he turned to writing esoteric, improvisatory theatrical pieces, the predecessors of “Licht.”

Though Stockhausen called it opera, “Licht” more closely resembles a medieval mystery play or the sacred festival drama of Wagner’s “Parsifal.” Essentially plotless, the cycle rotates around three archetypes from “The Urantia Book” — the Christlike angel Michael, his rebellious counterpart Lucifer, and the earth mother Eve — and each opera deals with a single character or combination of characters. The roles are taken variously by singers, dancers and instrumentalists. A compositional “superformula” containing the themes for each character underlies all the music. In writing his own librettos Stockhausen invented a mythology drawing on multiple cultural traditions, from Japanese Noh theater to German folklore. Lofty atonal avant-gardism brushes against jazzy free-for-alls; abstruse mysticism jostles with crude humor.

Not the least of the problems the cycle poses for conventional opera houses are its near-impossible logistical demands. Despite several attempts no company has found a way to pull off “Mittwoch” (“Wednesday”), partly because it incorporates Stockhausen’s infamous “Helicopter String Quartet,” in which each member of the ensemble flies in a separate helicopter, but also because the music is so fiendishly difficult. Other parts of “Licht” have been staged by La Scala in Milan, the Leipzig Opera in Germany, the Royal Opera in London and now the Cologne Opera, though never without difficulties. “Donnerstag” (“Thursday”) had its premiere in 1981 without its final act because of a dispute with the La Scala chorus. (Stockhausen apparently retained a sense of humor about the affair; the penultimate scene of “Samstag,” “Saturday,” also written for La Scala, abruptly halts when the orchestra goes on strike.)


This is the first of a two-page article about Karlheinz Stockhausen, a famous composer who was also a Urantia Book reader. I have not heard his compositions, but this one is based on The Urantia Book, and may be worth finding and hearing. Please click HERE to read the rest of the article.

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