In September 1985, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s monumental opera Donnerstag aus Licht received its UK premiere with a five-performance run at the Royal Opera House. In May, 34 years on, this remarkable work finally returns to our shores with two performances conducted by Maxime Pascal, here in our Royal Festival Hall.
The celebrated avant-garde composer Stockhausen spent 26 years developing his seven-part epic Licht cycle, which explored the story of mankind as a cosmic saga. Each opera is linked to a day of the week, a celestial body and a colour. Donnerstag (Thursday, Jupiter, bright blue) is the fourth opera of the cycle.
This is only the fifth production of Donnerstag aus Licht in its entirety since its 1981 premiere by La Scala Opera in the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. A fact which prompted us to take a look at other rarely performed operatic works.
Written in 1833 when the then 20 year old Richard Wagner was working as a part-time chorus master, Die Feen is the composer’s first completed opera. A year later, when seeking production of Die Feen, Wagner revised his original score, but it remained unperformed in his lifetime. Only over half a century after composition did the work finally receive its premiere, performed at Munich’s National Theatre in 1888.
It would be 1969 before Die Feen received its UK premiere courtesy of the Midland Music Makers Grand Opera Society at Aston University, Birmingham, and 1982 before the New York City Opera gave it a first US performance. It remains the only Wagner opera not to have been recorded for broadcast television or video.
The original manuscript for Die Feen also had an interesting life. Having been personally given to King Ludwig II of Bavaria by Wagner, the score was later given as a gift to Adolf Hitler, and is believed to have perished with him in his Berlin bunker in the final days of the Second World War.
Completed in 1869, Undina was the second opera from the hand of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Based on Vasily Zhukovsky's translation of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué's popular novel Undine, the three-act work was expected to be performed at Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. However, the opera was rejected by the theatre and Tchaikovsky, presuming it must therefore be no good, duly destroyed the majority of the work. Though four pieces survived the composer’s self-cull, Undina has never been performed in its entirety.
The first opera created by the ragtime composer Scott Joplin, A Guest of Honor was written in response to the politically polarising invitation of civil rights leader Booker T. Washington to a 1901 White House dinner hosted by President Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1903 Joplin took the recently completed opera on a national tour. However, less than a dozen performances into the tour the production was robbed of its box office receipts in Springfield, Illinois. With Joplin now unable to pay the bill for the company’s lodgings he was forced to leave a trunk containing belongings as means of a deposit. Among the trunk’s contents was the score for A Guest of Honor. The items were duly lost and the score for A Guest of Honor has never been recovered.
An opera in three acts to a German libretto by Joseph Gregor, Richard Strauss’ opera is based on an outline written in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s 1920, Danae, or The Marriage of Convenience. Completed in 1940, it was originally slated for a 1944 premiere in Salzburg, only for escalation of the Second World War to cause all theatres in the Third Reich to be ordered closed. However, in August of that year a dress rehearsal was permitted in order that Strauss and a small select audience could hear his work performed. So moved was Strauss by the performance that he stood and walked down to the orchestral rail in order to listen closely to the final interlude in the last act.
Die Liebe der Danae was finally premiered for an audience at the 1952 Salzburg Festival, three years after Strauss’ death. In more recent years, the work has received only sporadic performances, largely due to the considerable vocal demands of the opera and the complexity of its stage directions.
“For two hundred years the Europeans have been sending us their operas. Now I'm sending them back,” said John Cage on the completion of his five opera series, Europeras. Premiered at the Frankfurt Opera in December 1987, Europeras I and II contain music drawn from fragments of the 18th and 19th century repertoire, intermittently drowned out by a taped Opera Mix, whilst the libretto juxtaposes traditional operatic episodes.
There is no conductor for Europeras I and II, instead projections of a large digital clock are used to guide performers. The works have been performed rarely since their premiere, and as yet no recordings of Europeras I and II have been released.
Donnerstag aus Licht comes to Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall on 21 & 22 May, 2019.
This performance is one of a series celebrating the architect of modern music, which also includes a premiere of a new work from Actress inspired by Stockhausen’s Welt-Parlament, and performances from our artist in residence, Pierre-Laurent Aimard.