Opera by Karlheinz Stockhausen in five scenes and a farewell

By Thomas Ulrich

Karlheinz Stockhausen's LICHT haunts cultural life sort of like a legend. It is a work of superlatives: a cycle of seven operas consisting of 29 hours of music; the composer worked on it for over 25 years. Staged performances of its components are rare events. Nonetheless, Act II of DONNERSTAG aus LICHT (THURSDAY from LIGHT) was performed in Cologne in 2008: MICHAELs REISE UM DIE ERDE (MICHAEL'S JOURNEY ROUND THE EARTH) by the musikFabrik under Peter Rundel; the staged presentation of the work by a Spanish production team led by Carlus Padrissa (La Fura dels Baus) was a spectacular event and thrilled the audience. This gave the Cologne Opera the impetus to wage the world première of the last opera of the cycle, SONNTAG aus LICHT (SUNDAY from LIGHT) with the same team. Six complete performances are planned, four of which will be divided onto two days each and two will be performed on one day each.

LIGHT is a cycle about the seven days of the week. In ancient religious traditions, each day is associated with a theme of central significance for human life; in Stockhausen's work this theme determines the opera for that particular day. This also applies to SUNDAY. Sunday is the day of the relationship to God and the worship of God; Stockhausen very explicitly dedicated this opera to God. The whole opera cycle leads to SUNDAY: Religiosity is the ground for what happens each day - now, on SUNDAY, it becomes the central theme.

To honour God is the quintessence of a religious life, an intention that summons and intensifies all our strength to the utmost. For the musician this means: to play and sing for God, to praise and exalt him to such an extent that everything which is humanly possible is brought into play. This determines all six scenes of the opera: The solar system begins to sound; the creation fashioned by God, from the stones to the saints and most sublime powers, points with its beauty to its Creator; the seven days of the week, as paragon of the time allotted to the human being, with all their themes and energies, are imbued with God's light and spread an aroma that floats upwards; and finally, in the two final scenes, in HOCH-ZEITEN (MARRIAGES) for choir and for orchestra, it becomes apparent that God, whose essence is love, is Himself at work in earthly and heavenly love.

According to ancient religious tradition, angels are exemplary if one seeks to glorify God; Stockhausen has them appear in the scene ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN (ANGEL PROCESSIONS). Here they demonstrate that a life which is pleasing to God does not consist in morose super-achievement, but rather lifts its voice in joy at God's presence. That determines the entire opera. Stockhausen would not have been himself if it had not been of utmost importance to him to transcend limits, to make supreme demands on the musicians and stage artists as well as the audience. Precisely when God's praise is to sound, the as yet unheard must take shape, because the human being is turning towards the unfathomable. But throughout it all, harmony, beauty and joy reign - that is the fundamental sound which is heard in each bar of SUNDAY from LIGHT.