Loevendie's new operina Babylon in Utrecht
For the non-historian, we know of Babylon to be that ancient city whose Tower of Babel gave birth to the different nations that exist today. In the new one act opera Babylon, Dutch composer Theo Loevendie cleverly weaves a story within a story, demanding the musicians of the Ensemble Ziggurat, for which it was specially written, to play, sing, act, and tap-dance.
Perhaps only in the Netherlands can such a multi-lingual opera be enjoyed by audiences as young as ten. While the majority of this 70-minute one act opera is sung and spoken in Dutch, there are conversations and outbursts in German, Spanish, French, Arabic, English, and even Chinese. Loevendie employs elements of jazz, South American rhythm, American rap, and a plethora of non-traditional opera material to make this an entertaining feast for the senses.
From the beginning, I surmised whether the musicians were improvising or playing from score. It certainly appeared as though they were deviating from what was written --- or perhaps that's just what Loevendie intended. The boundaries of the stage were as blurred and nested as the story within a story, the musicians playing and acting as musicians in the opera. Only an exceptional composer could create music and the libretto as though they were improvised and unplanned. For indeed, even I, sitting in the third row of the Blue Hall of the Stadsschouwburg Utrecht, had a part to play in this opera.
The opera began when the doors to the "Blauwe Zaal" were swung open. As I walked up the stairs, I was greeted by well made-up musicians playing ancient instruments such as the panflute, Armenian duduk, and the Chinese two-string violin erhu. Has the opera already started, I asked myself. Once seated, I was surprised that the lead female singer not only greeted us but also led us to sing in unison "Babylon, is dit nu Babylon. De oude muziek is de moeite waard, maar nieuwe muziek heeft veel meer vaart..." In all the opera's I've attended, the audience is never addressed to by the cast, except at the very end for acknowledgement. We as audience are observers, not participants. Babylon is the exception. Loevendie makes use of all talents of the musicians as well as the audience. And thus, I was thrown in as a participant-observer.
Earlier that evening, I spotted Theo Loevendie sitting at the bar counter before I went inside. I had spoken to him at the Dutch Cornucopia concert in London two months before, in early September. He recognised me from that occasion and told me that one song was intentionally skipped because 70 minutes was already too long for the kids. I asked if the musicians had mingled among the audiences like this at the premiere in Amsterdam. He replied no --- this was just for the kids --- for the "Yo Opera Festival."
Fearing I wouldn't understand the different languages, I had spent 2 euros on the programme booklet. In the end, I realised that it wasn't necessary, for there was no translation of the non-English libretto into English. The music and the fine acting made up for the non-English libretto. It's not what you say but how you say it that matters.
My guest reviewer, a Dutch speaker, educated me in one of the lines of the composer in the opera: don't go right or left, just go forward. He said that line was used by the Dutch politician Rita Verdonk, famous for her immigration policies. I could see a parallel in the rebellion of the musicians against playing the music of several thousand years ago to the failure of Dutch efforts to integrate immigrants.
And then there was the Chinese chopping knife. The what? How can so many messages be packed into a 70-minute one act operina? I guess I must see it again.
4 November 2007
Theo Loevendie - official site
Ensemble Ziggurat - official site
Yo Opera Festival - official site
Tia Schutrups - more on Babylon the operina
Anne Ku writes personal reviews to remember a noteworthy occasion, communicate to those involved in the event, and share with those who were unable to attend.