Benjamin Staern’s Opera on Visionary Artist Hilma af Klint Is Premiered at the Guggenheim

United StatesUnited States Staern, Hilma: Soloists, Victoria Stjerna (violin), Andreas Lavotha (cello), Stefan Lindgren (piano), Peter B. Lewis Theater, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 15.4.2019. (RP)

Mette af Klint (Hilma af Klint) & Fredrik af Klint (Rudolf Steiner)
© Robert Altman

Director – Mira Bartov
Lighting and Projection – Fredrik Glanhs
Costumes – Ulrika Lilliehöök Larsson
Graphics – Siw Lövkvist
Makeup – Theresia Frisk 

Hilma af Klint – Mette af Klint
Rudolf Steiner & Erik af Klint – Fredrik af Klint
Hermina – Alma Adolfsson (recorded)

I had spent the afternoon at the Guggenheim Museum immersed in the life and art of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862–1944). How else to prepare for the US premiere that evening of an opera by Benjamin Staern and Mira Bartov based on her life and art? Hilma af Klint’s work is bold and colorful, often employing geometrical shapes and whimsical elements to visually convey her deep, if unconventional, spirituality. Her life story is fascinating, the opera less so.

The artist trained at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, to which she was admitted at the age of twenty, and she garnered recognition for her landscapes, botanical drawings and portraits which provided an income. The death of her younger sister in 1880 promoted a spiritual awakening that would change her life and art.

In her thirties, she and four like-minded female friends formed The Five. They held seances and made automatic drawings directed by spirits. In one session she was told to commence what would become her life’s work, The Paintings for the Temple; the building never materialized, but she did 193 paintings for it. They were among the first examples of European abstract art, predating the early works of artists such as Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian. She also had premonitions of the two World Wars.

Rudolf Steiner (1865-1921), founder of the esoteric spiritual movement anthroposophy which af Klint flirted with when she was in her sixties, figured in her life. Upon seeing her paintings in 1908, Steiner couldn’t comprehend them and told her that she was 50 years ahead of her time. That did not deter her from painting, but it was a factor in her leaving instructions that her work not be shown until at least 20 years after her death. The Guggenheim show, ‘Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future’, is her first major solo exhibition in the US, organized with the cooperation of the Hilma af Klint Foundation in Stockholm.

Swedish composer Benjamin Staern’s biography states that he has the ability to associate tones and timbres with different colors and tints, a form of synesthesia. The concept is fascinating and perfectly suited for an opera about an artist, especially one who would wholeheartedly endorse the notion. If it was at play in the music, I did not perceive it, but I neither claim such sensibilities nor discount their existence. What I did hear was a musical style that was original and indeed colorful.

The opera is scored for violin, cello and piano. Staern made liberal use of a prepared piano, the extreme upper ranges of the cello and harmonics in the violin. To the drone of the violin and cello, piano chords sounded like bombs exploding as footage of World War II air raids was shown. He also looked to the past for inspiration as evidenced by the contrapuntal passages and folk-like melodies in the score. The music was not the problem with this opera.

I found it hard to comprehend why Mira Bartov’s libretto focused so heavily on Hilma’s relationship with Steiner and her nephew Erik af Klint, to whom she entrusted her writings and art. That may come from her letters, but it neither jived with what I had seen and read upstairs in the museum, nor made for an interesting plot. This was not a woman defined by the men in her life.

It would have been fascinating to see one of the sessions of The Five or her other contacts with the supernatural. The opening scene when orange light surged like electricity from the outstretched hand of Hilma af Klint (the remarkable soprano Mette af Klint) as she communicated with her dead sister, Hermina (the amplified voice of Alma Adolfsson), was an indication of what might have been dramatically and visually.

Mette af Klint gave a powerful and compelling performance as the artist. Staern frequently took her into the vocal stratosphere, which she negotiated fearlessly. She also moved beautifully, even managing to balance a glass of water on her head while singing. The opera ended with Mette af Klint alone on stage pulling up tape from the floor, which may signify her freedom from the box in which society had tried to contain her or that the time had come for her art to be seen.

The music that Staern composed for the two male characters was perhaps intentionally earthbound. Tenor/baritone Fredrik af Klint was stolid in appearance and voice. (Yes, it is confusing, but many af Klints were involved. The program stated that he was related to the artist.) He is coordinated though, as he deftly caught the empty glass that Mette af Klint tossed over her back.

The advance press for the opera stated that the audience would experience scenes of Hilma af Klint’s life with projections of her paintings coming out of thin air, but this aspiration did not materialize. The stage was basically grey and black. The historical footage shown during two musical interludes depicting the two World Wars (some of Staern’s most compelling music of the entire score) were so grainy and dark that I could barely make out the images from dead center in the auditorium. Briefly, colorful images were projected on the dome of the ceiling, but that required much of the audience to look straight up rather than at the stage.

There is an opera here, and I would venture to say perhaps one with the focus solely on Hilma af Klint. The artist’s tragic death (at the age of 82 from injuries she suffered when struck by a street car) is tailormade for one. And, given the chance, I imagine that Staern could write wonderful music for a seance. If that should come to pass, Hilma would fit perfectly on a double bill with Menotti’s The Medium.

Rick Perdian

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