Mars! Ready or Not, We’re on our Way! – Kein Licht at the Opéra national du Rhin

FranceFrance Philippe Manoury, Kein Licht (2011/2012/2017): Soloists, Vocal quartet from the Chorus of the National Theater of Zagreb, United Instruments of Lucilin / Julien Leroy (conductor), Opéra national du Rhin, Strasbourg, 22.9.2017. (RP)

Kein Licht © Klara Beck
Kein Licht © Klara Beck

Soprano – Sarah Maria Sun
Mezzo-soprano – Olivia Vermeulen
Contralto – Christina Daletska
Baritone – Lionel Peintre
Actors – Caroline Peters, Niels Bormann
Dog – Cheeky

Co-production: Opéra Comique, Ruhrtriennale, Opéra national du Rhin, Festival Musica, Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, Grands Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, Münchner Kammerspiele, IRCAM-Centre Pompidou, United Instruments of Lucilin and 105 individual donors

Stage Director – Nicolas Stamina
Set Design – Katrin Nottrodt
Costumes – Marysol del Castillo
Lighting – Rainer Casper
Video – Claudia Lehmann
Computer Music Designer-Ircam – Thomas Goepfer

Kein Licht might have just as easily been entitled Keine Hoffnung; the former means no light in German, while the latter translates to no hope. The thirst for electricity in our self-indulgent and narcissistic era is insatiable. Is there any doubt that people would be shooting selfies in the midst of a nuclear meltdown? You may snigger, but then think about those who risked their lives recently to snap the perfect photo of their beaming faces as a hurricane bore down upon them. We can’t restrain ourselves. If it is not a mobile phone, than there are other energy-consuming devices that we deem essential. Moreover, we have next to no control over the most lethal of all technologies that we have created, nuclear power plants. Fukushima once again reminded the world of that.

The 2011 nuclear catastrophe in Japan inspired the Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek to write the post-apocalypse theater piece that is at the core of Kein Licht. Jelinek received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004 for her ‘musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that, with extraordinary linguistic zeal, reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power’. Composer Philppe Manoury and director Nicolas Stamina worked Kein Licht and two of Jelinek’s later texts, Epilog? (2012) and Hello darkness, my old friend (2017) into what they have termed a ‘Thinkspiel’, which translates as ‘thought piece’ or as they suggest perhaps ‘thought at play’.

The work is in three parts, the first of which takes place on 11 March 2011. A concert is performed as the disaster in Japan unfolds. The male and female protagonists are caught up in the tragedy, but they don’t see how they are complicit in any way and continue to go on as before, using massive amounts of electrical power and creating mounds of waste, toxic or otherwise. Part Two is set in 2012, when radioactive particles have contaminated the land, sea and air. The question is raised as to why nuclear power wasn’t abandoned before its destructive forces were unleashed, but it is left unanswered. Life goes on as usual until the electric grid collapses, the lights go out and mobile phones are silenced. In the final part, the ghosts of the dead from the prior disasters appear. Common sense has been subjugated to the twin tyrannies of technology and ideology. The party’s over.

The piece is performed by two actors (A and B in the text), eight singers (four soloists and a quartet), chamber ensemble, numerous stage hands, a dog named Cheeky and Atomi, a nuclear power plant in the form of a hand puppet. Human beings are pictured as mindless, hedonistic creatures, addicted to energy and other frivolous luxuries at any cost. One Atomi on stage is sort of cute, but several huge puppets peering down at you from above are rather disconcerting. Cheeky howls at the madness, but for the most part silently watches the follies of the humans. As the opera ends, the dog is alone on stage, barking.

I’m about the same age as Manoury, knew composers active on the electronic music scene and occasionally performed their works, so his music is not just noise to me. Manoury is a true believer, but eclectic. The edgy, angular music lines with their exquisite, crystalline dissonances nestled perfectly next to lyrical passages, and of course there were the beeps, blips and hum of the synthesizer. Manoury was even called upon to set Einstein’s theory of relativity to music. Towards the end of the piece, Jelinek incorporated an excerpt from Nietzsche’s Thus spoke Zarathustra into her text. It is the same one, known as the ‘Midnight Song’, that Mahler set in the fourth movement of his Third Symphony. Suddenly, I heard familiar sonorities. If anyone was expecting to hear Simon and Garfunkel’s hit song, however, they were really disappointed.

The performers were fearless, dedicated to the work and its message. The two actors, Caroline Peters and Niels Bormann, snapped selfies and frolicked as life on earth is destroyed. They were last seen flying off to Mars waving goodbye, with Earth fading in the background, crowded with nuclear power plants and missiles flying through the air. Peters and Bormann can be really funny, but deadly serious too. Their talent was in mining the irony in Kein Licht, all the while making the complex appear comprehensible. They also got the best costumes, bright red and blue space suits complete with an antenna on top of their heads.

The four solo singers were amplified, as they not only had to compete with a machine, but also sang from the audience at times. The cut-glass brilliance of Sarah Maria Sun’s laser-beam focused soprano was almost ear shattering at times, but what a singer, and her intonation was amazing. Mezzo soprano Olivia Vermeulen was pregnant and that alone made one stop and think. Dressed in Part III in a white, Grecian-style robe (which eventually was rained upon), she looked and sang like a goddess. Christina Daletska has a dark, rich contralto; maybe it wasn’t the music but the startling sound that emerged when she sang ‘Oh, Mensch! Gib Acht!’ which prompted the thoughts of Mahler. Wearing a beaded, black, off-the-shoulder dress much of the time, baritone Lionel Painter sang with conviction in several key narratives.

Film clips and other projections make up for the lack of an actual set. Water is a key element of the overall concept. There is black and white footage of two sorts of giant waves, those that crash ashore and destroy everything and, later, more tranquil, lolling ones. Two large tanks containing fluorescent acid-yellow fluid are lowered on to the stage and remain there. The actors frolic as the tanks spring leaks, blithely snapping selfies, as if in front of Rome’s Trevi Fountain. The radioactive water and rain gather in a pond of sorts, which the cast wades through to take their bows. Throughout, workers in protective gear were cleaning up the radioactive mess.

The orchestra is on stage during the performance. Conductor Julien Leroy’s repertoire ranges from eighteenth-century to contemporary music, and he has been invited to the Lucerne Festival every year since 2012. Kein Licht is a complex undertaking, and Leroy not only held it all together, but also put his personal stamp on it. The United Instruments of Lucilin, founded in 1999 as Luxembourg’s first chamber music ensemble dedicated to the performance of twentieth- and twenty-first century music, was superb. The four singers from the Zagreb Opera likewise added to the rich musical texture of Manoury’s score.

There is obviously a political bite to Kein Licht. In the second part, in a scene entitled ‘Hans and Grete aus Deutschland’, the actors skewer German and French attitudes, policies and hypocrisy relating to nuclear power. Part III zeros in on US President Donald Trump with his tweets that global warming was invented by the Chinese; as for North Korea, his rhetoric is distilled to ‘We’ve got missiles – let’s deploy them’. (Safe to say, Kein Licht isn’t going to play in the US any time soon.) Manoury does not spare himself, however, as he admits that as long as there is an energy source available, his machine will create music.

There is no escapism in Kein Licht: its fatalistic humor hits too close to reality to engender real laughter. The black-and-white film clips of nature’s fury have to compete with color images of the devastation caused by hurricanes and earthquakes over the past few weeks. Flashing portraits of world leaders and the Trump women evoked a few snickers, but they were almost Pavlovian responses. If the projections were done in real time, speech balloons with ‘Dotard’ and ‘Rocket Man’ would have been there.

The words of Albert Einstein are running through my mind. When asked how World War III would be fought, he responded that he had no idea, but he had an opinion on World War IV – sticks and stones. Kein Licht might just have it right. If we destroy this fragile planet, Mars is an option. I am of the post-Sputnik generation. As a child I believed President John F. Kennedy and, sure enough, America landed a man on the moon within the decade. Why doubt President Trump’s promise to launch a human mission to Mars in his first term? That is, If the Chinese don’t get there first.

Rick Perdian

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