In 1991, Karlheinz Stockhausen, the mystical showman of the musical avant-garde, was commissioned to write a string quartet for the Salzburg Festival. Being Stockhausen, he offered up the “Helicopter String Quartet,” in which musicians play while flying around in helicopters. The work doubles as a scene in the composer’s seven-part operatic cycle, “Licht,” written between 1977 and 2003. The idea of spending state funds on helicopter music did not sit well with the Austrian Green Party, which attacked the project as wasteful. Under political and financial pressures, Salzburg withdrew, and the première took place at the Holland Festival, in Amsterdam, in 1995. I was there, and found the experience striking but ultimately monotonous—a lot of frantic tremolo competing with the whirr of rotor blades. This spring, the Holland Festival staged the piece again, in the context of a three-day survey of scenes from “Licht.” The quartet remains tedious, but other episodes are so packed with wonder that all doubts fall away.
The argument about wastefulness deserves a hearing. The Holland Festival production, which was titled “Aus licht,” reflects a tendency toward gigantism in the modern performing arts—multimedia spectacles that often impress more through sheer scale than through artistic coherence. Typical of the genre is Heiner Goebbels’s “Everything That Happened and Would Happen,” which recently played at the Park Avenue Armory. A sprawling meditation on war, it looked more like a technical rehearsal than like a finished product, with drop cloths randomly raised, lowered, and dragged about. An international circuit now exists for this aesthetic of vastness, using such cavernous venues as the Armory, Tate Modern, and the Jahrhunderthalle, in Bochum, Germany. “Aus licht” unfolded at the Gashouder, a former gas-storage facility that is part of the Westergasfabriek culture park, in northwest Amsterdam. The trend betrays an anxiety about the fate of traditional arts in an age of screen culture: the assumption seems to be that only colossal doings will get audiences to look up from their handheld devices.
In the case of Stockhausen, though, only the colossal will suffice. “Aus licht” turned out to be the kind of inexplicable marvel that one waits half a lifetime to see. It induced shivers not just in its awesome moments—trumpeters intoning a chorale from balconies; brass players engaging in military-style skirmishes in the aisles; angel voices singing an extraterrestrial liturgy—but also in its unexpectedly intimate passages, its glimpses of the composer’s shattered childhood. “Aus licht” was one of the great theatrical events of the new century; it would have been even greater without the aerial extravagance.
The operas of “Licht” are named, in German, for the days of the week. First in the series was “Donnerstag,” which had its première at La Scala, in Milan, in 1981. The last to emerge was “Mittwoch,” which was first seen in Birmingham, England, in 2012, five years after Stockhausen’s death. At first, the Holland Festival had hoped to stage all seven operas, but the logistical challenges proved insurmountable. Instead, a production team led by the French-Lebanese director Pierre Audi assembled fifteen hours of excerpts—a little more than half of the cycle. The musical director was the Dutch flutist Kathinka Pasveer, who lived and worked with Stockhausen. She spent three years supervising an army of some four hundred performers, many of them students at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. They essentially majored in Stockhausen.
“Licht” lacks a conventional plot, although it does have an elaborate mythology, which Stockhausen culled from various religious traditions and esoteric practices, including Theosophy and Anthroposophy. Its principal characters are the archetypal figures Michael, Lucifer, and Eve, who represent the cosmic forces of creation, rebellion, and rebirth. These roles are not only sung by vocalists but also acted out by instrumental soloists, who must memorize their parts and execute precisely choreographed movements. Michael’s primary instrument is the trumpet; Lucifer’s, the trombone; Eve’s, the basset horn. Choruses, wind bands, percussion ensembles, and swaths of electronics join the melee.
“Aus licht” began with two big scenes from “Donnerstag”: “Michael’s Youth” and “Michael’s Journey Around the Earth.” An autobiographical dimension becomes clear at once. Stockhausen’s childhood was nightmarish: his father, a schoolteacher who embraced Nazi ideology, was killed on the Eastern Front, and his mother, who suffered from depression, was murdered in the Nazi euthanasia program. By his mid-teens, when Stockhausen was a medical orderly tending to disfigured, dying soldiers, he had become an orphan. In the opera, the Eve character is given a lethal injection while the Lucifer figure barks out such slogans as “Sacrifice for the homeland!” Michael, standing in for the composer, escapes into a world of musical invention and virtuosity. He triumphantly passes his exams and embarks on a global tour, exploring the musical traditions of America, Japan, Bali, India, Central Africa, and Israel.