The Day After SONNTAG

Friday 29 April 2011

So I went to Cologne to see Karlheinz Stockhausen’s opera SONNTAG aus LICHT, the culmination of his epic LICHT cycle of seven operas, one for each day of the week. Only now has this opera been given a complete, fully-staged performance, some eight years after its completion and three years after the composer’s death. So much vague pronouncement and speculation has surrounded the LICHT project, based on what often seems so little direct experience, that I had to see it for myself.

Having said that, it seems impossible to discuss SONNTAG without going into a description of what happens in each of its five lengthy scenes, interpreted in this case by La Fura dels Baus, the same guys who did that version of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre I saw a while back. At the same time, it seems rather pointless to just give a rundown of what each scene contains: this will surely be covered in greater detail elsewhere. Some audience descriptions are online, along with video and photos of the production.

SONNTAG is an opera with no plot, not even any dramatic tension; not does it attempt to work on the audience to extract a catharsis as so much theatre which passes itself off as ‘ritual’. It matches perfectly a description I once read of Stockhausen’s earlier Sirius: “a sci-fi mystery play”. Each scene presents a tableau, depicting the spiritual aspects of all creation, in Stockhausen’s own peculiar vernacular.

I went into SONNTAG at noon on Easter Sunday and left at 9.30 that night. The next morning I went to see the service at the K├Âlner Dom, which included a performance of Liszt’s Choral Mass, and saw again much of what I had experienced the previous day. The use of word and music in affirmation of belief, the smoke and scent of the incense, the occasional chimes, the processions and movements of the clergy and of the congregation, the different colours of light suffusing the haze above the altar, from the sunlight streaming through Gerhard Richter’s windows, to the conclusion where the congregation turn to embrace each other. All of these aspects were present in Stockhausen’s opera. The connections between the two should not be at all surprising, but it was a powerful reminder that so much of what seems outlandish in Stockhausen’s music theatre has been an established part of life for centuries.