"Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is a Surprise!"
The first scene, A Dream, is not only the beginning, but also a portent of the end. The Sorceress Kuhmist (Tereza Marečková), dressed in a black plastic dress and wearing the antlers of a roe deer in her curly hair, plays the first note on a violin. Sternenhoch (Sergej Kostov) sits down at a table, bows his head and falls asleep. A pale lady with dark hair appears wearing a golden gown – the demonic Helga (Vanda Šípová). She floats around the stage effortlessly: standing on a fur coat dragged by her two beautiful doubles. The melody is also dragging and eerily dreamy, dominated by the singing and the sound of the strings. “Kiel miracle bela vi estas! Serafo! Dio! La diodela Suno – la Sunomem…” The actual beginning of the story is indicated by a shattering bang (“a girder being struck” according to the libretto), which also indicates an awakening. In the background, Helga changes into a maid’s uniform and puts on her glasses. A shiny chandelier, made out of the type of empty plastic containers used in office water coolers, descends from above. There is still some liquid in some of them. The containers are placed upside-down and light is emitted from inside them. This chandelier illuminates the backdrop, which is composed of little round mirrors. The mirrors together create a shape that resembles a dragon skin or a marble mosaic. The gaps between the mirrors are transparent and thus the projection of their ornamental shadows covers the floor of the stage.
The Ball – in this scene, Sternenhoch, out of compassion, asks for “poor” Helga’s hand during a dance (“a zither waltz alternating with satanic mazurka” as stated in the libretto). While Helga “dances like a robot”, kicks out her legs and bends her body, the other dancers move around smoothly or shake themselves wildly in unison.
The protagonist is unheroic, small, and has lank hair. The dark shadows on the cheeks of his round child-like face are painted white to resemble a “mask” as in the old Expressionist horror movies. He is dressed in a brocade suit decorated with Balkan ornaments. Even his drunken dance seems Balkan, as if he were not an aristocrat from Germany, but someone from a remote eastern part of the Austro–Hungarian Empire. Sternenhoch’s dancing alter ego (Jan Kodet) is his attractive manly incarnation. His masculinity is emphasised by fur attached to his leggings in the form of gigantic pubic hair. He dances together with a quartet of wood nymphs dressed/undressed in a funeral-black erotic –their naked bodies under the fur coats covered only by transparent black garments. Although they are the maid Helga’s doubles, in this scene they bully her terribly: they push her around, and when Sternenhoch’s double takes away her glasses, the nymphs make fun of her “blind” groping in the dark. The dancing and singing are hectic. Petr Kofroň, conducting the orchestra from the first row, also has a role as the Narrator. At the beginning, he speaks to the audience in an otherworldly voice, and later, in the last manic “satanic mazurka”, he jumps up on the stage and joins the dance. The theatre prompter, sitting next to him, has to make a real effort to calm him down and to force him back to his place.
When Saša Michailidis, the ArtZone commentator, asked Ivan Acher how he would react to criticism of his music, the immodest, yet untrained composer, said that he was ready to fight with his fists for his music. This combination of directness and exaggeration in his answer is typical of Acher’s ‘Worldwide Centre of Autodidacts for the Retraining of Professional Musicians into Amateurs’. This is a seriously meant joke: which holds that professional musicians can be saved from decline and tiresome empty routine only by their return to amateur, unskilled, and therefore stereotype-free creativity. Archer’s Sternenhoch is therefore composed in a highly artistic, but also amateur spirit.
Archer thus follows the approach and view of life of Ladislav Klíma (1878 – 1928), whose work The Suffering of Duke Sternenhoch he has adapted for this opera. Klíma wrote his grotesque mystery novel with humour, yet he meant it seriously. By using the techniques of pulp fiction, horror, and pornographic murder stories, which he didn’t parody but relished writing, Klíma managed to achieve a greater sharpness and clarity for his philosophy. The split between ridiculousness and seriousness, between low literature and high philosophy was ever present in Klíma’s writing. His view of life was very similar. Klíma was an outsider, homeless, and fundamentally an amateur, who tried to reach Olympus and to become a god using only his own free will. Such an attitude is socially unacceptable because it disregards society. Klíma’s friends tried to break his “resistance”, to have Klíma appreciated and make him part of the establishment: the unsuccessful premiere of his play Honest Matthew (Pocitvý Matěj, 1922) at the National Theatre was an example of their mission. Despite all their efforts, however, Klíma remained an outsider until the end of his short life. If the wishes of his many critics had been fulfilled, Klíma would have been forgotten after his death. Even in Karel Čapek’s obituary of Klíma a certain disdain can be discovered: “a nihilistic illusionist” Klíma “lived as a heavenly bird” and as such, “he should hide in a furrow, where his poor remains would serve wild nature to flourish in all her beauty and nothingness.”
If Klíma was a persona non grata during the first Czechoslovak Republic, then he was all the more so for the communists. His scandalous writing, ideological individualism and nihilism were a prime example of decadence. Being an outsider during capitalism did not help Klíma either. He did not fit in the working class struggle because he didn’t want to work nor did he want to socialize. Logically, Klíma was a guru for the underground, i.e. for anybody who didn’t wish to be complicit and have a career in a servile socialist society. It is less clear if Klíma might have become a guru in today’s free word, which protects individualism, and where art, especially commercial art, is - if not sentimental – full of a certain hypocritical morality. In this sense, Klíma’s work might just be another easily accessible bestseller. But it is not.
The reason is probably the stylistic and ideological originality of his work, which consistently defies stereotypes. Even today Ladislav Klíma remains one of the homeless that society is afraid of and thus he is still overlooked. Today’s outsiders and amateurs might find Klíma a great pioneer. Just as outsiders and amateurs may represent the “working class” of the future, it can be predicted that Ladislav Klíma has a future as well.
I doubt that Archer’s Sternenhoch, directed by Michal Dočekal at the National Theatre in Prague, will become a hit with audiences, although the production deserves to be. Nevertheless, I believe that the critical appraisal the opera Sternenhoch has received so far from theatre experts is not merely temporary fame.
The third scene of Sternenhoch, called For her Hand, is introduced by a squeaking sound – which is created by playing the violin bow through a hole in the membrane of the symphony drum, as described by DIY experimenter Acher in ArtZone. Then a huge chest descends from above, and the Father (Luděk Vele) enters, a disgusting man in dirty underwear and a military uniform with epaulettes and medals. A choir of sorceresses clean the floor in a dance-like manner. Sternenhoch asks the Father for Helga’s hand and the sorceress Kuhmist cites Dante: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here…” Thus we realise that we are in hell. The Father and the groom drink a disgusting green liquid from a “demijohn”, i.e. the same plastic container the chandelier is made of. As written in the stage direction – “Time chimes with the zither sound of knitting needles” and “the gipsy fiddle” is played by Kuhmist. In a conflict with the Father, Sternenhoch is attacked by sexy sorceresses with brooms. The angry Duke grows to a majestic height as his alter ego sits on his shoulders. The Father apologizes to Sternenhoch and hangs crocheted shopping bags with bottled pickles on Sternenhoch’s hands and also on the hands of his alter ego.
This scene is followed directly by The Wedding Feast. The chest is expanded by adding two equally high tables; they are joined together by stretched plastic foil instead of a table cloth. Pickles, a green phallic vegetable of a King Ubu shade, are the only food served at the wedding. They are “being drunk” or eaten. During the ceremony, the newlyweds are given wedding wreaths. The music is lyrical and dragging, but the melody is still haunting. Sometimes a sound of thunder is heard as if a storm were coming in the distance. Sternenhoch and Helga tie napkins under each other’s chins, while Kuhmist brings a pregnancy pillow. Helga’s voice rises to an extreme height. The feast is cleared away and Helga sits down on the chest to give birth, during which a plastic container is taken out of the chest. This time, there is a doll inside – a swimming baby with its head drowned in rose water. It is evident now that all the containers are wombs.
The new-born is called after his father Little Helmut, which is also the name of the fifth scene. Kuhmist warns Sternenhoch with the following words by Ladislav Klíma: “Very often people mistake sleep for being awake, god’s rest for laziness, and a slowly approaching tiger for a pig.” Helga is doubled by her maid, her original weary image: she is dragging a large “roasting pan” of they type used at a pig slaughtering, a so-called butcher’s meat lug. Sternenhoch does not heed the warning signs and proclaims, despite Helga’s cautionary tiger grunts, that he sees himself in his son. Helga hits Sternenhoch’s head with the new-born’s head. The baby is dead and Helga instructs her husband on how to blame the nanny for the baby’s death and informs him that their relationship will continue now only as pen friends. Her voice is hellishly deep as the singer opens and closes her mouth simultaneously with her maid double.
Klíma would probably be saddened by the abbreviation of his mystery novel and the selection of the text in this opera adaptation. All the side stories were left out, and only the basic plot remains. The text is quoted directly, but only very selectively. He would be more surprised at the caution the authors take to cut the “quality” of the prose text: “Sternenhoch at the National Theatre is not the work of obscenity non plus ultra, of wickedness, and of foolishness” that Klíma was so proud of. The theatre-makers omit or use a cloud of metaphors to hide the erotic and brutal scenes that Acher’s libretto still includes. For example, in the murder of Little Helmut, the new-born, the splash of the brains from the baby’s little head is swapped for a pink amniotic fluid poured from the “womb” into the butcher’s meat lug by Kuhmist.
Yet, Klíma would not be disappointed with the production. He might enjoy the fact that the story is performed by only five dancers and that the stage design needs little more than some plastic water containers, a few chests, two tables, and a backdrop, which opens up. He would definitely like the sorceress Kuhmist, whose role has changed from an episodic one in the book, into being a main mover of the production. He might eventually also agree that condensing and softening the metaphors has not prevented his work from having a basic philosophical and aesthetic value. The rottenly sweet beauty resides in the “magic atmosphere, the magic atmosphere resides in the horror, and the horror resides in being about that which does not exist, in contradiction: as contradiction is the foundation of all poetry.” (Philosophical Confessions, 1925). The production works well mainly because of the music and the performances by the musicians, singers, and actors. The audience’s attention is not disrupted by visualized obscenities and wickedness. As a result, even a critic of the production may gradually change from being an accuser of the theatre-makers to their defender.
The topic of the sixth scene is A Date, an “erotic ritual” according to the libretto, between Helga and her lover, the Poet (Jiří Hájek). The Poet holds a whip and has boxing gloves on a string attached to the sleeves of his fur coat; under his coat he wears only a vest and underwear. The semi-nakedness is emphasized by a gigantic jockstrap. Helga wears only a negligee and garters under her fur coat, and she attaches a black strap decoratively across her eyes. On stage, their date (but actually the entire production, given the fur coats everybody is wearing) has a sadomasochistic flair, as Helga is tied to a chain by her lover and then she is stretched on it. The chandelier is pulled down behind their bed. The end of this scene is much shorter than in the original text. Sternenhoch shoots the Poet through a “window” in the backdrop, Helga faints, and Sternenhoch together with his double drag her off the stage.
The backdrop is turned around and the audience can see how the mosaic is constructed. A glass case resembling a telephone booth descends from above. In a Cell, as the next scene is called, Sternenhoch sings: “Oh Helga, my terrible star, I only realize I truly loved you after I killed you…” The booth lights up suddenly and in the sharp light Helga appears as if she were alive. She is wearing a negligee and a maid’s apron. She should – as the Lover told her to – be nice to Sternenhoch, yet she attacks him viciously. Sternenhoch manages to defend himself: he stuffs his sock into Helga’s mouth and pushes her into the chest. With a background of industrial music, Sternenhoch hammers nails into the chest containing Helga. After he finishes, he pulls the chest up. At the end of the scene, instead of singing, only an inarticulate howling is heard and the audience can read subtitles, which tell them what Helga is trying to say. The deep base tones are replaced by a violin and some really scary music introduces the following eighth scene.
This scene is named after the sorceress, Kuhmist. Sternenhoch goes to her to ask for help (he is having visions of the dead Helga, this time called Daemona). Kuhmist, multiplied by a choir of dancers, crawls out of the windows in the “dragon skin” of the backdrop. The music includes industrial sounds, the banging of iron on iron, and creaking. The wild rhythm is accompanied by a melody in a different, slow tempo. For the sorceresses’ “cooking” an entire office water cooler is brought in. The container holds a liquid of a very suspicious colour. Kuhmist raps the list of ingredients that the dancers give to her in an almost czardas rhythm as she throws the items into the container. She tells Sternenhoch how to get rid of the spooky Helga. His dancing alter ego, going wild from the feeling that there is nothing to be worried about anymore, opens his fur coat to reveal himself to the dancers.
The greatest asset of the opera Sternenhoch is the congenial language Acher has created for it: both the music and the Esperanto, in which the libretto is sung. The use of Esperanto, an artificial language, which aimed to be “universal”, but remained a linguistic outsider, seems absurdly ridiculous. However, according to Acher, it is thanks to the language that the audience don’t need to bother trying to understand the sung text (it can be read in the subtitles). Most importantly, however, the rhythm and word stress of Esperanto resemble melodious Italian. This notion has been repeated by many reviewers, but the Esperanto language sounded to me more like a strange Romanian-Balkan mixture of familiar words. For example, the famous magic formula Kuhmist told Sternenhoch to use to chase away Helga is in Esperanto: “Fantomo en anuson mian saltu!”
The humorous effect of Esperanto might be accidental, but Acher’s music, which is very compatible with the language, is humorous on purpose. It is not traditionally funny, i.e. a pastiche of citations and variations of famous melodies, which usually create irony thanks to the associations such works evoke. Instead, Acher’s music is original and its humour is similar to Klíma’s prose. It is also based on contradictions. Acher’s technique is similar to that of Frank Zappa. Not that the music is similar to Zappa’s, but that they both relish in grotesque curiosities created by given musical instruments, in unusual rhythmical, melodic parts, and in an unconventional singing style. While Zappa liked to use polyphonic melodies composed of grotesque falsettos, Acher approaches the voices of the central couple in a less showy, but all the wilder extremism. Kostov oscillates between a manly tenor and cowardly contra tenor, and Šípová’s soprano sinks to a growling, tiger-like bass, but also rises up to extraordinary heights. This masterful overstepping of boundaries is a musical expression of the extreme boundaries that the characters overstep. It is important to note that all the performers are excellent in singing, acting, and dancing. Moreover, Tereza Marečková as Kuhmist is on the same level as the two main protagonists. She naturally oversteps the boundaries in the matter-of-course manner of a mischievous little devil.
Musically, Acher combines the lively playing of Marečková (violin and viola), Lukáš Svoboda (contra bassoon), and Michal Muller (zither) with a recording; natural sound with electronically distorted sound (sampling, electronic music, ‘revoxed choirs’ etc.) It is difficult to tell the two types of music apart. The result, however, is very lively, if this adjective can be used to describe the mostly otherworldly music. The main contradiction of the music is its double Klíma-like nature: it is simultaneously slow and fast, somnambulistically lyrical and wildly danceable, deadly dragging and fatally threatening, grotesque and frightening.
The ninth scene, Delirium, is introduced by a “kaleidoscope of madness”, a big exhibitionistic-erotic dance number of Sternenhoch’s wilder double and a choir of sorceresses, accompanied by a wild rhythm and thunder. Helga peeks from the chest, which is hung high in the air. “I am afraid I have not won the crucial battle /…/ I will not connect hatred with eternal light.” Her singing is extremely high and angelic. Suddenly, a single tone is replaced by a wild rhythm, the chest comes down, and Helga-Daemona accuses her husband in a tiger-like voice. She appears from the chest in a draped costume with a boar fur in its central part. When she opens her arms, she resembles a huge vulva. The choir of sorceresses move around jerkily: they are zombies. Flames burst out of the chest. The dead Poet comes alive and asks for Helga. Sternenhoch and his double throw cabbages at him and the Poet smashes them in the air with his baseball bat – instead of the heads of his victims. He then proceeds to strangle Sternenhoch, but he is strangled by his double instead. The Poet dies for the second time. Sternenhoch announces a dream sequence in a circus manner: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a surprise!” All the female dancers are creating a headless body in a fur coat, from which arms/tentacles stick out like branches. The music drills into our brain with the sound of a chainsaw.
In The Grand Finale, Sternenhoch’s coitus with Helga takes place. He overcomes his fear and she gets rid of her hatred. The couple achieves redemptive apotheosis by the coitus. There is no wild sex act between Sternenhoch and the Maid, who is lying on a post-mortem table, let alone an act of love. Sternenhoch only lifts the limp girl, one of Helga’s doubles, opens and closes her mouth as if she was a puppet and dubs her. The singing is almost acapella, with a soft post-mortem echo. The real Helga appears in a golden dress dragged around on a fur coat. They sing together with Sternenhoch in a heavenly lyrical vulgar orgasm: “Your terrible, encompassing Light penetrates even the closed eyelids.” Eventually, the words that Sternenhoch heard in the opening scene, A Dream, are sung: “How gorgeous you are! Seraph! God! God of the Sun – the Sun itself!” (“Kiel miracle…”) In this moment, Sternenhoch, in a straightjacket, is tied down and sits next to the dead Maid, who is lying on the table. When the golden goddess Helga finishes her aria, the Maid falls from the table, Sternenhoch’s head falls to his chest, and the light goes off. If it was not an opera, this modest scene would not be as powerful as Klíma’s finale. Yet, Acher’s music lifts it to an appropriately high level. And this is how it should be in an opera.
Ivan Acher: Sternenhoch, libretto Ivan Acher, Esperanto translation Miroslav Malovec, conductor Petr Kofroň, directed by Michal Dočekal, choreography Lenka Vagnerová, set design Marek Cpin, costumes Eva Jiřikovská, light design Eva Hamouzová, dramaturgy Beno Blachut jr., Opera of the National Theatre, premiere 7 April 2018, New Stage, National Theatre in Prague.
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 3, volume 2018
translated by Hana Pavelková