Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Karlheinz Stockhausen and My Part in the European Avant-Garde

In the mid-eighties I was one of the Production Managers at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It fell to me to take charge of the technical side of things on Stockhausen’s opera “Donnerstag aus Licht”.

The production was to be directed by Michael Bogdanov and designed by the late, great, Maria Bjornson, a challenging coupling if ever there was one. Stockhausen was a charming charismatic character, who never let anyone else in the room get a word in edgeways if it could be prevented. Before we went into production Michael, Maria and I went to visit him at his house on top of a hill near Cologne. The house, which I think Stockhausen may have designed himself, was circular with a lot of ramped levels and glass walls. Using the loo was a little disconcerting as it had a floor to ceiling window with fine views of the Rhine Valley and equally fine views for those outside, like the postman for instance, of whoever was sitting on the loo reading the Sporting Life. One of the main reasons for our trip was to ascertain from Stockhausen what his opera was about. In the course of a long dinner he skilfully avoided giving us much of a clue. When faced with a direct question he would either change the subject or reply in such vague and confusing terms that one was none the wiser. Most of dinner was occupied by Stockhausen banging on about his various hobby-horses one of which was prefaced by the question, “where is the centre of Europe?” We all had a go. Vienna and Frankfurt were mentioned. “No!”, he said “it’s here, right here!” He then gave us a rambling lecture, which based on Ley lines, cosmic waves and Celtic tribal migratory paths, proved that he had chosen to build his house at the very centre of Europe. We returned to London with a loose grasp on all sorts of things none of which were “Donnerstag aus Licht”.

Just how far our creative concepts were from Stockhausen’s ‘reality’ were made apparent during the early stage rehearsals of Act 1. Entitled ‘Examen’ (Examination) Maria and Michael had come up with a rather gloomy and menacing set. There was a grey cyclorama behind barbed wire fencing and judge’s podia that were a cross between Wimbledon umpire’s chairs and concentration camp watchtowers. Our lighting designer, Chris Ellis, had come up with wintry lighting to suit. It became increasingly obvious that Stockhausen who was attending to things musical at the front of the stalls, was not happy. Eventually he stormed up the aisle to the production desk. “Michael! Maria! Why is everything so depressing? This scene is a scene of triumph, of celebration, a fiesta if you like”.
“Ah…” said Michael.
Maria however was up to the challenge and turned to me brightly and said “Ted, do we have any bunting?”
We did. Overnight we changed the cyc, painted everything red and replaced the barbed wire with jolly bunting. Art is that easy.

Stockhausen came to London with his entire ‘circus’, a mix of wives, mistresses, children singers and acrobats. The opera was made up of 3 acts with a “Gruss” (Welcome) and “Abscheid” (Farewell) played by a dozen trumpeters stationed on the rooftops of Bow St outside the front of the theatre as the audience arrived and departed. Act 1 was largely a piano piece played by a daughter and Act 2 a Trumpet concerto played by a son. Act 3 was very confusing. The whole thing ran about 5 hours. The music was challenging, when I described the show to a stage carpenter friend he promptly said “Oh bing-bang-bosh music”.
I think many of the audience agreed. At each interval the house thinned out perceptibly, though I was particularly impressed by one diehard who stuck it out to Act 3. At one point in this act, and for no particular reason that I can think of, a radio controlled toy tank drove off a glass topped table and fell to the stage with a dull thud. The diehard finally snapped and leapt to his feet shouting “That’s it! I’ve had enough. This is just silly”, and left slamming the Crush Bar doors behind him.
For me personally the whole experience was almost magical. After 6 weeks I did start to ‘get’ the music. Stockhausen and his troupe were extraordinary and even if none of us at Covent Garden knew what was going on it all seemed to work. Best of all the set design involved lots of moving parts that enabled me to play in the basement with Mike Barnett (the world’s greatest living stage engineer) and the Opera House’s hydraulic systems.

At the end of it all Stockhausen gave me one of his LPs. He signed the sleeve “cordially yours Karlheinz” The ’O’ of cordially was drawn in the shape of a heart. Now how avant-garde is that?


how999 said...

Dear Ted,

Most interesting! The worry, and perhaps the explanation of many things, is that you confess to begining to "get" the music.

Happy New Year.


Bill H said...

I would love to see a risk assessment for the piece of equipment on the postcard.
Happy New Year.

Bill Harrison.

Bob said...


Always good to hear one of your stories and smile at your ability to work with the best of the best.

Hope 2008 brings you more good experiences to share.

Bob Kronman

david94110 said...

Dear Ted,

"Do we have any bunting?" shall become my phrase celebre (here in France) for 2008.


johnmcm said...

Well I know I'm late in the day but it wasn't a dozen trumpeters, it was five! I know because one night I got to cue them - my conducting debut at Covent Garden (well it was hardly Von Karajan - I just pressed a button which sounded a buzzer in their headsets!)

After two nights the local residents complained about the noise and the trumpeters had to play from inside the opera house...

My favourite moment was the rehearsal that was stopped by a strange beeping noise... Everyone assumed a disaster involving the sound equipment was imminent but it turned out that Karlheinz had left an alarm clock in his briefcase!!

A few years later (after I'd left the ROH) I met the great man again when his "Sternklang" was performed in a park in Birmingham. His first words to me were: "Why hasn't that Jeremy Isaacs revived my opera??!!"...

Ah well... I've never regretted being involved in Donnerstag, mad though it all was!


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