Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Andriessen and Opera: The Bell Rings Thirteen Times

            Writing music for unconventional ensembles and music theatre has been a constant in Louis Andriessen’s career. Together with the American composers Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams, and his compatriot Michel van der Aa, he is one of the foremost composers of postmodern contemporary opera (so-called ‘postopera’). The four-part De Materie (1985-88) is representative of his bold and manifest operatic activity. Both in terms of music and staging, the postopera Rosa, the Death of a Composer (1993-94, staged by Peter Greenaway) stands among Andriessen’s most transgressive and ‘juicy’ pieces. Reinventing the culture of Western movies, exaggerating its macho elements to the edge of political correctness, subordinating the role of the ‘diva’ who sings naked most of the time, Rosa is still too hot to handle for many. In a different way, the delicate Writing to Vermeer (1997-98, again in collaboration with Greenaway) tenderly recomposes baroque music and its wider culture. The film-opera La Commedia (2004-08, directed by Hal Hartley) is a complex multimedia event rethinking love, death, heaven and hell, and looking afresh at romantic music through Andriessen’s very particular lens. Having in mind his small-scale operas Inanna (2003) and Anaïs Nin (2009-10), as well as the early collaborative opera Reconstructie (1969), Theatre of the World (2015) arrives as Andriessen’s eighth operatic offspring.

               When we hear the opening solo bass trombone of Theatre of the World, our first association might be with Luciano Berio’s Sequenza V (1966). Andriessen’s former teacher’s piece was a tribute to Grock, ‘the last of great clowns’. It was his capacity to appear hilarious and deeply melancholic simultaneously that made Grock’s performances so famous. This trombone-clown reference is in a way a perfect match for this piece, subtitled ‘a grotesque in 9 scenes’, where melancholy and irony are the main motors of the ‘drama’. The solo bass trombone elaborating a descending glissando motive slowly involves another trombone part and the two lines grow into a background structure supporting the singing of the principal character, the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher. The legacy of Padre Atanasio - ‘the last man who knew everything about the theatre of the world’ - is also a play on the absurd: he is praised both as a great scientist of his time and as a ridiculous charlatan.

               Theatre of the World is certainly not the first stage work in which Andriessen is attracted to the grotesque. The fourth part of La Commedia - The Garden of Earthly Delights - was inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s eponymous phantasmagorical oil on wood triptych, a colourful and amusing portrayal of human nature and its fleshly appetites. The painting features a number of nudes engaged in all kinds of sexual perversions and leisure activities, flying, and swimming among fantastical ‘buildings’, giant fruit, birds, butterflies, seashells, fish, etc. Likewise, the first part of La Commedia refers to the anarchic behavior suggested in Bosch’s painting The Ship of Fools, which depicts a bizarre company floating in a barge. As a metaphor for mankind, the barge drifts away in an unpredictable direction. And in keeping with this passion for distortion, we might easily locate the ‘horse drama’ Rosa, the Death of a Composer in the line-up. It is a Brechtian parody about film, opera, and their interrelationship. It mockingly depicts the world of western movies and an alleged conspiracy against composers. The Uruguayan composer Huan Manuel de Rosa is a macho violent guy who appears to care more about his horse than his mistress Esmeralda. Yet despite his cruelty, Esmeralda does everything to please her lover. She even paints her body black to appear more like Rosa’s mare... Finally, the depiction of a character from De Materie comes to mind as another example of grotesquerie, with the painter Piet Mondrian evoked as a ‘dancing Madonna’ in Part 3, De Stijl.

               In Scene 4 of Theatre of the World Athanasius Kircher, the boy and Pope Innocent XI are on a journey on the river Lethe, the river of forgetfulness that flows through the Underworld. Suddenly they realize that they have arrived at Babylon. The tower of Babylon is the one depicted by Pieter Bruegel, in another painting laden with symbolism and critical of the actions of humanity. The fact that the libretto is written in seven languages (Italian, French, English, Dutch, Middle Dutch, Spanish and Latin) probably refers both to the Tower of Babel myth, and to the fact that Kircher himself spoke several languages. The motive of the ship sailing on the river that makes one to forget is again a potent invocation of human nature in its more superficial, grotesque aspects. The tender and ecstatic aria of Sor Juana speaks of pyramids, of Pharaoh, and of associated glories. Its music reminds us both of Andriessen’s song ‘Y Después’ (1983), which uses Lorca’s text in Spanish, and of the ‘Earthly Delights’ of La Commedia. It is profoundly melancholic and ecstatic at one and the same time.

               The singing characters in Theatre of the World are primarily male. Padre Atanasio is most of the time followed by the boy who turns out to be a devil in disguise. The boy, sung by a soprano, could also be seen as Athanasisus’s alter-ego, and Athanasius is often annoyed by the questions he asks.  Likewise, the character of Pope Innocenzo XI is portrayed as particularly grotesque and conservative. His stiffness is underlined. A minor role is given to the hangman of Rome, too. And there are also three witches, a reference to the witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: on the evil side and with the power of prediction. The young lovers, He and She, are likewise a reference to Romeo and Juliet. And hovering above all those characters there is the celestial presence of Sor Juana, a Mexican nun and poetess who was allegedly the platonic love of Athanasius Kircher.  Hers is the most tender and most passionate music in this piece. In the context of Andriessen’s other operas, the character of Sor Juana might be located somewhere between Hadewijh (De Materie) and Beatrice (La Commedia).

               The characterization of women in Andriessen’s operas is profound, and, I dare to say, more searching then the characterization of men. Even when an opera is named after a man, the most impressive roles may well be sung by women. The most obvious example of this is Writing to Vermeer, where the title character never appears, but is nonetheless the one who holds the power to objectify the women. They are the objects of his art, and he is the subject who regulates their existence in painting, but also in ‘real’ life. Beatrice was a female ideal for Dante (‘he was sure that she was sent from heaven’), singing with a celestial voice from above. Sor Juana also appears to be singing from far away (as it were, from Mexico). Those figures stand for an Ideal of female beauty (for Dante and Kircher respectively). They appear as objects of desire, of comfort, and of longing, and as such they are out of reach.

               One boundary that Andriessen dismantles in his operas is between different vocal types: jazz singers, opera singers, early music singers, folk singers. He has no interest in such distinctions. The voices he envisages performing his compositions are often without vibrato, and ideally they exhibit folk, jazz, ‘classical’ and early music qualities all at the same time. The situation is not different in Theatre of the World, where, for example, the three witches, as well as He and She, are cabaret singers. Already for some time Andriessen’s vocal muse had been the Italian singer Cristina Zavalloni, whose extraordinary multifarious voice featured in the chamber opera Inanna (2003), the opera Anaïs Nin (2009-10), the Passeggiata in tram in America e ritorno (1998) for solo voice and amplified solo violin, and the double concerto for voice and violin La Passione (2002). It also takes pride of place in La Commedia, where Cristina appears as Dante, Cristina and the ‘voice’. In Theatre of the World Zavalloni is Sor Juana. She is given six arias that refer also to Joana’s poetry. Musically they are also reminiscent of Spanish-Mexican folk songs.

               In terms of musical language Theatre of the World could be seen as linked to La Commedia to form a diptych. It is at least equally eclectic. It is intriguing to see just how many references, quotations and self-quotations Andriessen uses. The solo trombone reference appears at the beginning of Scenes 1, 8 and 9, where it is further developed in an ensemble context. The whole character of Sor Juana is based on a kind of double reference – located somewhere between Hadewijch and Beatrice. There are several clear references to the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, most obviously at the beginning of scenes 4 and 5. In the best tradition of De Stijl, an alto saxophone, bass clarinet and guitar bring us a mambo-beat theme that appears to be a quotation from ‘Tequila’ by The Champs. And suddenly above this Latin rock theme the three witches start singing the motive from Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’: Elysium from the mouths of witches who are also cabaret singers! And the children’s song that was used as a kind of epilogue in La Commedia, is echoed in Theatre of the World Scene 3 in instrumental form.

                At the end of his operas Andriessen often introduces some kind of Epilogue. In Rosa it was an ‘Index’ singer parodying some of the concepts used in the opera.  In La Commedia it was a children’s choir mocking the whole situation. And in Theatre of the World the characters of the four philosophers – Leibniz, Goethe, Descartes and Voltaire - are introduced only in the Epilogue. They question Kircher’s scientific contribution (‘he knew nothing about anything at all’), but finally agree that his name will be remembered. Towards the end, the bell rings thirteen times, just as in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Devil in the Belfry’ (referred to in the score). The tranquility of a remote Dutch village, whose inhabitants consider the most important things in life to be sauerkraut and clocks, has been disturbed by the arrival of the devil-musician. He arrives with a fiddle that is bigger than him, takes control of the bell tower and rings 13 times on village’s bell! Order, tradition and boredom have all been banished!

Text by Jelena Novak

The text was written for/commissioned by Dutch National Opera at the occasion of European premiere of "Theatre of the World". Dutch version of the text was published in the program booklet.










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