COLOGNE, Germany — Will Karlheinz Stockhausen’s reputation ever be rehabilitated? The question hangs over this city this month, with the world premiere of “Sonntag aus Licht,” the last, longest entry in the composer’s 29-hour, seven-opera cycle, “Licht” (“Light: The Seven Days of the Week”). And though the German composer — a leading figure in contemporary music for the second half of the 20th century — died in 2007, for some, particularly in the United States, he still lives in the 9/11 penalty box.
In late September 2001, after a journalist questioned him about the relevance of characters in his mythological operas, Stockhausen responded with an ill-advised metaphor. Speaking about his Lucifer — a nasty-if-ingenious force for destruction in the “Licht” saga who “does not know love” — Stockhausen posited that the character’s handiwork could be observed in New York and went on to call the attack “the biggest work of art there has ever been. . . . Just imagine what happened there. There are people who are so concentrated on this single performance, and then five thousand people are driven to Resurrection. In one moment. I couldn’t do that.” Stockhausen started contextualizing quickly, by reminding his audience: “It is a crime, you know of course, because the people did not agree to it. They did not come to the ‘concert.’ That is obvious.”
But his meaning was not obvious to everyone. The shortened quote — “the biggest work of art there has ever been” — traveled the world quickly, in some instances minus anything about Lucifer being “the artist” in question. Concerts were canceled, and Stockhausen was forced to clarify that he did not support terrorism. But the composer had shown a hint of what the critic Richard Taruskin had diagnosed in a 1993 essay for the New Republic as a “hypertrophied aestheticism that transgressed the normal boundaries of art and invaded life.” Today, if you utter Stockhausen’s name in polite American classical company, you can still reap a chorus of “You can’t be serious!”
And so it fell to the composer’s hometown crowd to rally to the cause of bringing the “Licht” cycle one step closer to completion. By the time of his death in 2007, the composer had seen five of these works staged. The last world premiere of a entire “Licht” opera — each of the seven is named for a day of the week — took place in 1996; since 2001, rumors of complete performances to be mounted have been snuffed out almost as soon as they were first whispered.
All that changed last weekend in Cologne. Before the show began, each member of the audience was invited to choose a canvas-backed reclining chair placed evenly around a cylinder in the circular, stark-white auditorium. Up next to the ceiling, six white screens resembling fan blades were attached to that same cylinder, which also anchored a movable metal platform that held video projection equipment and was operated by men wearing spacesuit-like gear and vaguely astrological-seeming facepaint.
Once members of the orchestra had filed into the auditorium, a woman, the character Eve, appeared. Or rather, six women, walking as one inside a pyramid-like latex suit that allowed stray hands and Kabuki-painted heads to become part of the costume’s body. At the top of the massive macro-woman was the soprano Anna Palimina. Across the room from her was Michael, portrayed by tenor Hubert Mayer, who was dressed even more improbably. He stood inside a contraption that looked like a Segway, but which quickly — and somewhat phallically — hoisted him on a hydraulic spit, near the top of the auditorium’s domed ceiling, before twisting him at a 45-degree slant, where he was held aloft.