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Because It’s There.
16 Mar 2012
Inside the Classics

That old canard about why people climb Mount Everest never seemed so applicable to the music world as it did today when I read in The Guardian that someone has decided to actually stage Karlheinz Stockhausen’s insanely unstageable opera, Mittwoch aus Licht. To be blunt, there is no earthly reason that any sane human being would ever attempt such a thing, other than to be able to say that you actually did it.

Perhaps you think I’m overstating the absurd difficulty of bringing this opera to life. Wagner’s Ring cycle, after all, requires some pretty crazy special effects, and the stuff that the Met Opera puts on a stage in New York every night frequently approaches the level of actual magic in terms of logistical difficulty. So how far outside the norm can this Mittwoch thing really be?

Well, first off, it requires multiple helicopters.

I’ll just repeat that, because it bears repeating. In order to stage this opera, you need four separate functioning helicopters, all of which must actually fly during the performance, and each chopper needs to contain one member of a string quartet. The helicopters are essential, because the composer instructs the musicians to react as much to the sound of the rotor blades as they do to each other.


Amazingly, this part has actually already been performed. Several times.

In another scene, you also need eleven musicians to hover high above the stage (without helicopters this time) while competing in the final round of an audition for a symphony orchestra. As one who has participated in many orchestral auditions over the years, this seems only marginally crueler to me than the usual process, so I’m not so concerned about this part.

There’s also something about a World Parliament meeting in the clouds to debate love and elect a soprano President. (Closed-circuit to World Parliament: that last part is an extraordinarily bad idea. Abort.) One major character is a Bactrian camel. A specific BBC Radio 1 DJ is required to preside as some sort of ill-defined “moderator.” And some poor violist will be expected to contend with a flock of wild geese as he flies over a railway station while playing his instrument.

Like I say, it’s completely ridiculous that anyone would attempt to stage Mittwoch aus Licht, especially at a time when the global economy is still fragile and people everywhere are worried about whether they’ll have jobs tomorrow. Throw in the fact that Stockhausen’s music isn’t exactly the sort of crowd-pleasing stuff that your average listener likes to unwind with of an evening, and you could even call what is obviously going to have to be a sizable cash outlay on this production irresponsible.

But there’s something incredibly gutsy and endearing about it, too. The whole point of art (as differentiated from pure entertainment) is to push our boundaries and challenge us to open our hearts and minds to new experiences. Sure, there’s value in re-experiencing the familiar – Brahms symphonies will never stop being thrilling to me – but without occasional forays into unexpected and even shocking realms, our artistic tastes quickly become calcified, and we all wind up as that curmudgeon who can’t stop ranting about how the only good music was the stuff he listened to as a teenager. And nobody likes that guy.

The legendary (and sometimes controversial) arts manager Michael Kaiser has long made the case that the proper response by arts organizations to difficult economic circumstances is actually more innovative programming, not less. Which makes perfect sense, if you take the long view: when times are tough, everyone is a lot more cautious about where they spend their pocket money, and if all we’re offering for the price of a ticket is the same old stuff you heard/saw last year and the year before and the year before that, well… that pocket money’s probably staying in the wallet. But offer people a truly unique experience, something they’ve never seen before, and might never get the chance to see again, and you’re on your way to a successful pitch that your organization is worth the price of admission.

It’s all much easier said than done, of course. Money doesn’t grow on trees, it’s very hard to persuade people to embrace the unfamiliar, blah blah blah. But here’s a fact: it’s our job as artists and arts organizations to do that hard work. It’s what differentiates us from the for-profit purveyors of faux culture that dominate American airwaves and arenas in the 21st century. And if we’re not embracing that outsider’s role, we’re inviting our eventual demise.

So bring on the helicopters. Because, honestly? When are you ever going to get the chance to see an opera like that again?

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