Operadagen opening night in Rotterdam

If, from the name Operadagen (Opera Days) you anticipate and expect Verdi, Puccini and Wagner et al, then you will be disappointed. If you love music, drama, spectacle, originality and have an open mind then you will certainly not be disappointed.

What I love best about opera is that it is total theatre, bringing together all the other disciplines and talents involved in the performing arts. You have high drama, great acting and singing, wonderful music, often dance, plus the opportunity for designers and directors to give full reign to their talents. This was demonstrated last night by Earth Diver, the opening performance of this year’s festival.

With the best will in the world it would be hard to describe this, as with many of the events in this year’s festival, as opera but it was brilliant, exciting and innovative theatre.

It took place on the stage of the Nieuwe Luxor theatre, nestling in the shadow of the equally dramatic Erasmus Bridge. But, maybe surprisingly, the whole thing was on stage, audience as well. The audience was guided through the pass door, through the wings and onto a darkened stage. The house curtain was down so it was a totally enclosed area with the huge space above disappearing into the void of the fly tower.

The four areas of seating surrounded the performance area, a scaffolding construction with several small platforms on the highest of which sat the central character, a middle aged man in a grey suit sitting on a revolving dais in what amounted to a cage with a small light, a microphone and a music stand. He spoke the text, often monotone, often animated and often resorting to gibberish or silent screams. Just below him, one of the musicians on a long-necked lute; on another side, a young lady playing a viola da gamba and on another, a small organ; above them hung four large, double-sided video screen. This was 360o total immersion. The twenty or so singers were moving constantly, often behind the audience, often singing in beautiful harmony, at other times making popping or hissing noises.

The theme used mining as a metaphor for depression and hopelessness. The video screens showed miners, trucks and wagons in a desolate, snow covered landscape. The text by Paul Verrept dealt with death and despair and if one had to choose one word to describe the piece it would be bleak. There was little comfort there.

What I said before about total theatre was demonstrated in Earth Diver. Had it been a play it would have been Samuel Beckett, if it were a painting it would be a Francis Bacon or an Edvard Munch and had it been a location it would have been a cathedral. The scaffolding was like a high altar surmounted by reliquary.

This was one of the best evenings I have spent in a theatre in a long time and I loved every moment. Praise for Earth Diver must go to its director Wouter Van Looy, who also conceived the piece, to the excellent ChorWerk Ruhr and to musicians David Van Bouwel, Wim Maeseele and Lies Wyers under the baton of Florian Helgath. The text, in English, was spoken by Phil Minton and the wonderful music was by Heinrich Schűtz (1585-1672) and Nikolaus Brass.

But Earth Diver was only part of the Festival’s opening night. In the foyer, before the performance, we had a few brief speeches and a couple of snippets from future events. The whole thing got off to a thunderous start with a short piece from Iyov a company from Ukraine. Six singers wearing white shirts and long black skirts (yes, the men as well) were accompanied by piano, cello and percussion and made full use of the Nieuwe Luxor’s sweeping staircases, moving in almost monk-like procession to present their music. Next was, I suspect, the party-piece from Claron McFadden who appears in Façade, The Last Days of Mata Hari. She stood at the top of the stairs singing David Bowie’s We Can Be Heroes accompanying herself on a small glockenspiel. Great stuff.

After Earth Diver, it was party time when the whole of the theatre’s vast front of house filled with the wine drinking audience while performers presented more tasters from future shows.

All in all, a wonderful, exciting evening which bodes very well for the rest of Operadagen 2018 . Congratulations to its Artistic Director, Guy Coolen.   Michael Hasted  18th May 2018

Click here to listen to our exclusive interview with Artistic Director Guy Coolen

Click here for more information and full programme