I went to see Stockhausen’s Donnerstag aus Licht mainly out of curiosity. Performed at the Southbank Centre for the first time in the UK since 1985, the description on the website made it sound intriguing.
The opera was the first to be composed of a seven-opera cycle, each named after a day of the week and a colour. The title translates as Thursday from Light, and the colour theme is bright blue, although I didn’t see much evidence of this during the production. It tells the story of Michael, an allegorical figure meant to represent the composer himself, as he grows up, travels the world and ascends to heaven.
Beginning with a Greeting, performed outside the auditorium in the Clore Ballroom, the opera told the story in three acts. In the beginning, we see Michael’s childhood in the world of humans. His youth is marked by tragedy, as we see his mother lose a child, threaten suicide and be condemned to an asylum. In the second act, he travels around the world, and in the third, he ascends to heaven. The evening is rounded off with a Farewell, performed by musicians on the balcony of the Southbank Centre as the audience leaves the building – sending strains of music over the water as I crossed the bridge to the station.
The music is – to my emphatically untrained mind – that twentieth-century ‘modern’ sound that isn’t particularly melodic and makes use of unusual sounds both instrumental and vocal. There were times when I got rather bored and my mind began to wander, particularly during the second act, which can hardly be called an opera as there was no actual singing. On the other hand, there were some superb and very amusing moments when orchestra members became full participants in the action. A pair of trumpets had a kind of duel, another bass player appeared to attack the pianist (don’t worry, no pianists were harmed) and a pair of clarinettists had a dance-off. In the third act, as Michael has a confrontation with Satan, a trombonist, who previously impressed with his tap-dancing, slowly crawls off like a frightened caterpillar while everyone is distracted by the warring pair. This third act has some impressive light effects, which certainly break the monotony.
I’m not sure if I would rush to see the other six operas in this cycle. Nevertheless, this performance was an interesting experience and there’s no doubting the ability and commitment of the musicians involved.