Mittwoch aus Licht, Argyle Works, Birmingham


You wait for years for a helicopter and then... four come along at once, in Birmingham as in Edinburgh. What a whirl!

Lips puckered as though for a kiss, the sweet-tempered Bactrian camels in the yard of the Argyle Works set the tone for the world premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Mittwoch aus Licht. Devotees of director Graham Vick's work with Birmingham Opera Company in the city's disused factories, banks and ice-rinks know the virtue of camel-like obedience: walk, sit, lie down, trust, observe, engage. Thus 500 people placidly picked their way through the concrete gloom of a former chemical works, positioned themselves on camping stools, stowed their bags under their legs for take-off, and waited for the lights to go down.

This was Birmingham's week:from the fecund gurgle of Hieronymus Bosch's fantasy world in Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's premiere of Simon Bainbridges's The Garden of Earthly Delights to Andris Nelsons' incendiary account of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony with the CBSO, both at the BBC Proms.

Mittwoch, composed between 1995 and 1997, is the last of Stockhausen's seven-day cycle of operas to be staged complete: a six-hour sequence of tableaux for instruments, voices and electronica celebrating creation, love, receptivity, clairvoyance, language (real and invented), and yellow. Performed piecemeal in Munich, Stuttgart, Amsterdam, Salzburg and Cologne, the work in full is a cosmic dream to dwarf those of earthbound Wagner. "Helicopter String Quartet", the fourth and most famous tableau (see Clifford Bishop, facing page), is the least of it. Whatever advantages Wagner enjoyed in terms of developing a coherent musical narrative, the Ring cycle does not feature a dancing camel that defecates seven planets.

In Vick's unhurried, ecstatic promenade production, Stockhausen's dream was realised wittily and lovingly. In the pitch-black softness of "Wednesday Greeting", Kathinka Pasveer's electronic prelude pulsed from speaker to speaker, now insectlike, now metallic, now a babble of repeated sung syllables – "Mi! Mi! Mi!" – the timbres diverting, the juxtapositions of pitch banal. Actors, kite-runners and dancers were lit briefly in the darkness. Upturned umbrellas became receivers for messages from outer space. Women processed with distended, pregnant bellies. A naked figure showered with a watering-can. One girl released a white balloon, another stood under a branch of forsythia.

Stockhausen's music became more substantive and startling as the audience moved into a second space where Vick's actors were joined by the 36 singers of Ex Cathedra for the polychoral, polyglot a capella congress of "World Parliament". Perched on yellow umpire seats, their faces painted the colours of flags, the singers blurted, crooned, kissed, hissed and growled a surround-sound space-age motet: now a drone of basses, now a coloratura cadenza, now imprecatory, now celebratory in duet, trio, quartet, octet or double-chorus, conducted first by the tenor President (Ben Thapa), then by his soprano successor (Elizabeth Drury).

In "Orchestra Finalists" we basked in perpetual summer on blue mats, as instrumentalists swung 10, 20 feet above. Fragmentary toccatas from clarinet, violin, bassoon, trumpet and flute were greeted by mutton-whiskered industrialists in smoking stove-pipe hats, a waving Russian cosmonaut, squealing gulls, falling confetti. A trombonist splashed in a paddling pool, answered by the yodelling and extreme spiccato of a zoot-suited double-bassist. If Stockhausen's horn-writing alludes to Mahler's Third Symphony, the result is more demotic, less pastoral.

"Helicopter String Quartet" is an anticlimax: too proscriptive for directorial interpretation and musically dull – a chain of dopplerised chromatics played in the air, relayed on four screens and framed by a Q&A session between DJ Nihal and the Elysian Quartet. London Voices replaced Ex Cathedra in the loopy denouement of "Michaelion", as the pantomime ungulate Lucicamel enjoys a pedicure, drinks champagne, shits planets, squashes a trombonist and unzips to reveal the Operator (bass Michael Leibundgut), a final blast of madrigalian folly before the submarine hum of Pasveer's electronic "Wednesday Farewell". Only a composer born on Sirius, as Stockhausen claims he was, could create this. Only Vick and the extraordinary Birmingham Opera Company could have brought it to life.

Critic's Choice

Scottish Opera's new and newish one-act operas, Craig Armstrong's The Lady from the Sea, James MacMillan's Clemency, Huw Watkins's In the Locked Room and Stuart MacRae's Ghost Patrol, open in Edinburgh (Wed). Simon Rattle and the Berliner Phil breeze into the BBC Proms with a shiversome programme including Sibelius and Ravel (Thu) and a Brahms/Lutoslawski double-decker, Royal Albert Hall, London (Fri).

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...