by Thea Derks
Dutch National Opera (DNO)
Dutch National Opera was founded shortly after World War II and has been based in the Amsterdam Muziektheater since 1986. Though its main focus is on the standard repertoire, the company regularly commissions operas from Dutch composers, often in collaboration with the Holland Festival.
In 2015 Theatre of the World by Louis Andriessen (1939) on a libretto by Helmut Krausser drew international acclaim. The ‘grotesque stage work in 9 scenes’ based on the life and phantasies of Athanasius Kircher is told in four different languages, in an exuberant musical mix of opera, jazz, modernism and minimalism. Pierre Audi (1957), DNO’s artistic director from 1988-2018 matched the inimitable libretto on Kircher’s magical journey with expressionist juxtapositions in a luscious set-design by the Quay Brothers.
In 2016 Michel van der Aa (1970) presented his ground-breaking opera Blank Out, based on texts by Ingrid Jonker about the trauma of losing a child. In a fascinating play with live performance and 3-D visualizations Van der Aa succeeds in seamlessly merging virtual reality with physical performance. The main character at times appears as three persons, singing in harmony with her own vocal lines that she recorded live a minute ago.
Blank Out formed part of the first Opera Forward Festival, initiated by Audi to give young creatives a chance to develop small scale productions, explore experimental techniques and meet renowned composers and directors. Their short operas are performed in different venues, on the steps of Muziektheater and in other unlikely settings. They can further develop their talents in an OFFspring trajectory.
In this context a young team realized the successful opera In Nabijheid (In Proximity) in 2021, in the bleak-industrial setting of DNO’s decor studio. In response to Verdi’s Aida they addressed the theme of #blacklivesmatter by combining the classically trained singers of the Dutch Chamber Choir with the vocal quintet Black Harmony specializing in Afro-Surinam close harmony.
Perhaps DNO’s most sensational new opera was Ritratto by Willem Jeths (1959). The live premiere on 13 March 2020 fell prey to corona, but a video of the dress rehearsal was released on YouTube a week after. The libretto by Frank Siera tells the story of Luisa Casati (1881-1957), a super-rich marquise who regards herself as a living work of art and lavishly entertains artists and poets of name. She even stabs out her eyes in an effort to become immortal, but dies poor and lonely, forgotten by all.
The online premiere drew some 76,000 visitors from around the world. Press and public were enchanted by Jeths’s soaring vocal lines, sumptuous harmonies and subtle references to music by Puccini, Strauss and Tchaikovsky. The production was further enhanced by dazzling costumes, fascinating stage design and the judicious direction of Marcel Sijm. The soprano Verity Wingate was breath-taking in her role of Luisa Casati. Ritratto was released on CD in October 2020, when the opera got three live runs in a corona proof setting for an audience of 350 people.
When in September 2020 the opening production Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito had to be cancelled because of Covid-19, DNO commissioned a team of young creatives to realize a last-minute substitute: Faust [working title]. Director Lisenka Heijboer Castañon and conductor/composer Manoj Kamps created a collage from the standard opera repertoire and newly created work by Dutch composers.
The resulting amalgam of songs, musical fragments and styles is loosely connected with the crucial theme of Faust, the quest for knowledge. The production was a huge success and DNO will continue to stage small-scale productions with local talent in the future. In May 2021 DNO, Nederlandse Reisopera and Opera Zuid signed a covenant for long-term cooperation in the field of talent development.
This touring company was established in 1993 and focuses on the opera canon, though it occasionally commissions new works. In 2010 Klaas de Vries (1944) composed Wake, as part of the commemoration of the disaster in Enschede in 2000, when a fireworks warehouse caught fire and many people were killed or injured. The libretto of David Mitchell however is not anecdotal, but rather treats calamity in a more general sense. De Vries spices up his modernist idiom with lyrical references from Wagner to Berio and an electronic sound décor by René Uilenhoet.
In 2014 the Reisopera staged a new version of THE NEWS, a reality opera by JacobTV that deals with the delusion of everyday life and the role of the media in the 21st century. In a dazzling mix of live music and footage from international news shows JacobTV addresses an immense number of themes that make up the ‘infotainment’ we impassively consume every day. – Demagogic speeches, natural disasters, atrocities of wars, despairing people and showbiz vie for attention in a swirling confluence of images doused in loud, minimalist music and electronics.
Founded in 1991 this small company has since toured the Netherlands with the standard repertoire. When Waut Koeken was engaged as artistic director in 2017, the roster became somewhat more adventurous. In 2018 he presented the short chamber opera De Grens (The Border) by Jan-Peter de Graaff (1992) on a libretto by Yuri Robbers. This zooms in on 10 November 2018, when Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany sought refuge in The Netherlands, just before the end of World War I. Music and scenery hark back to the joint creations of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.
In 2020, when live theatre was banned because of Covid-19, De Graaff realized Bonsai Garden, 8 miniature operas grown in quarantaine, a series of 8 virtual mini-operas on as many different librettos. Each opera features one singer and one instrumentalist and is filmed in the singer’s home. De Graaff once again shows his flair for writing vocal music. Though the melodic lines contain large leaps between the registers, they remain imitable and pleasing to the ear. Director Kenza Koutchoukali successfully evokes the stifling atmosphere of living in forced quarantaine.
KASKO is a development centre for music theatre supporting young, national talents in creating and performing contemporary music theatre. It was founded in 2007 and is based in Zwolle, Eastern Netherlands. In a three-year trajectory writers, composers, directors, singers, musicians and designers get a chance to collaborate and strengthen their position as independent artists. The company works closely together with the ArtEZ conservatoire Zwolle, November Music, Grachtenfestival, Oranjewoudfestival and other arts organisations.
In 2018 Brechtje (1993) (also known as Bec Plexus) composed Niet de klucht van de koe (‘Not the comedy of the cow’) for 3 singers, recorder, viola da gamba, harpsichord, electric guitar, drums and percussion. In tribute to the Dutch playwright Gerbrand Adriaenszoon Bredero (1585-1618) the title references his most famous play, De klucht van de koe. Director Warre Simons places its original main characters – a cow, a thief and a farmer – in an absurd, dark and physical musical drama. The music is an ebullient mix of prog-rock, wry rhythms and syrupy vocal lines.
Anne-Maartje Lemereis (1989) composed This is (not) a fairy-tale in 2019, for mezzo soprano, violin, piano and percussion. The singer also plays on an installation of blue medicine vials built by Rob van den Broek, and once even picks up a bass-guitar.
In twelve songs Stella vents her disillusion at the concept of a couple living ‘happily ever after’ in fairy-tales. She runs over the frog/prince and each consecutive knight in shining armour turns out to be a brute. The accessible score offers instantly recognisable pop structures sprinkled with influences from jazz and minimal music. A planned rerun in the season 2020-2021 was cancelled because of corona.
Diamantfabriek (Diamond Factory)
This production house was initiated in 2010. It supports the artistic development of young composers and directors by commissioning small-scale and full-length music theatre pieces. With few means the organisation has realized interesting productions, some of which found their way to festivals such as Dag in de Branding (The Hague), November Music (Den Bosch) and venues such as Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ (Amsterdam) and Toneelschuur (Haarlem.)
In 2013 Conversations with my Mother by the American-Dutch composer Benedict Weisser (1967) and director Matthias Mooij (1976-2014) was premiered. The libretto is based on scripts of fictional telephone conversations, captured by seven different authors, and zooms in on the ever difficult relationship between mother and son.
The jolting long-distance calls are caught in somewhat choppy rhythms. And by using both early and modern keyboard instruments – Erard grand piano, baroque spinet, modern synthesizer – Weisser evokes the often awkward communication between mother and son. After its successful premiere in 2013 the opera toured the country and was resumed in 2016.
The Turkish-Dutch Meriç Artaç (1990) realized two memorable operas under the wings of Diamantfabriek. In 2016 she addressed the disheartening fate of asylum seekers in Zonderland (‘Without land’), an absurdist fairy tale about waiting, powerlessness, homesickness and hope. Artaç pairs an electronic soundscape centring on an ever-spinning washing machine to two singers, one of whom also plays a violin, the only possession these refugees have managed to salvage on their flight.
Two years later Artaç composed Madam Koo for 3 singers, 1 actor and instrumental quintet. The opera deals with the search for trust in times of duress, and abounds in references to terrorist attacks and the culture of fear in Europe. The story is set in World War II, in the Amsterdam Beethovenstraat from where many Jews were deported to the camps.
Rather than focusing on literal events however, Artaç and director Ingrid Askvik portray two neighbours with different cultural backgrounds who try to reach out to each other despite their anxiety. The musicians respond to the action with grinding strings, stamping feet and hushed whispers, the singers have expressive outbursts and play a rhythmic game with consonants. Madam Koo was toured successfully and has been repeated several times.
Founded in 2014 Silbersee creates unorthodox opera, aiming to reach a general audience. It combines artists, creators and performers from very diverse backgrounds, ranging from classical contemporary and operetta to circus and urban. The various elements are linked through the music, that determines the dramaturgy of the whole; the human voice is always central.
The American-Dutch composer David Dramm (1961) wrote the score for Aardappelvreters (‘Potato gobblers’) in 2018. Its title winks at Van Gogh’s painting The Potato Eaters and the production is set on the grounds of a farm near Alkmaar. It highlights the tensions between urban and peasant life and the decline of the latter. Lyrical arias and haunting choral harmonies are combined with popular Dutch rock songs and haphazard instruments such as milk cans, jerry cans, pig's jaws, exhausts and a self-built balafon.
Veenfabriek was established in 2004 and focuses on interdisciplinary productions that appeal to all the senses. They often serve a meal during their playful and innovative performances and systematically engage with society. Though based in Leiden, Veenfabriek plays throughout Holland, both indoor and at outdoor locations in festivals.
In 2015 the Greek-Dutch composer Yannis Kyriakides (1969) wrote the music for Tulpmania. It is an ode to the flower that is iconic for the Netherlands but originated in the Himalayas. The opera was staged in the greenhouse of a tulip bulb company in Voorhout, a village near Leiden. Kyriakides seasons a modernist language and electronics with mellifluous vocal lines for a soprano and an amateur choir.
In 2001, when Rotterdam was the Cultural Capital of Europe, a number of institutions joined forces, which led to the initiation of the Rotterdam Opera Days in 2005 (renamed O. in 2021). The festival programmes innovative music theatre in this city on the river Maas that lacks an opera house. The concept ‘opera’ is interpreted broadly and the productions are mainly staged at unusual (outdoor) locations. Most of these are co-productions with Dutch and Belgian companies and ensembles.
In 2017 Huba de Graaff (1959) created Liebesleid, an opera exploring the possibility of training away one’s heartbreak that was set in a gym. That same year the Greek-Dutch composer Calliope Tsoupaki (1963) composed Fortress Europe, about the fate of refugees who face a wall of obstruction from privileged Europe. Spicy harmonies and bent tones evoke the Arabian background of the boat people, while echoes of Greek folk music symbolize Europe. Abundant drones create an atmosphere of resignation and resignation.
Youth and children’s opera
Since 1990 Theater Sonnevanck has created over 150 professional music theatre productions for children from age 4. Their home base is a former textile factory in Enschede, whence their productions travel throughout the Netherlands, Belgium and abroad. These are staged in small-scale theatres and at primary and secondary schools in a specially built trailer. In 2016 the opera Roodkapje won the prestigious Gouden Krekel Award (Golden Cricket) for best youth opera production with Bromance.
The play is intended for adolescents and centres on violence towards homosexuals. Social expectations and the fear of being excluded weigh heavily on the three main characters. Bart Rijnink (1984) compiled and arranged pop songs for the soundtrack, and after its much lauded premiere Bromance was repeated several times.
In 1994 Holland Opera was founded, as the first independent youth opera house in Europe. Though based in Veerensmederij Amersfoort, the productions are often staged in factories and museums or at outdoor locations such as car parks and forts. The operas ideally relate to social themes that are close to the perception of young audiences.
In 2016 opera Roodhapje with music by Steven Kamperman (1970) won the Young Audience Music Award. The title is a pun on the fairy-tale of Red Riding Hood, known as Roodkapje in Dutch. – Hapje translates as ‘tasty bite’. Different from the original tale of the brothers Grimm the main character defies her mother, and outwits the wolf who drowns in a pit. The music is an eclectic mix of classical, rock and blues, spiced with bumpy rhythms and dissonance.
The Nederlands Philharmonic Orchestra asked Monique Krüs (1959) to write an opera about Anne Frank in 2015. Krüs based Anne & Zef on the play of the same name by Ad de Bont, who used fragments from Anne Frank's diary as a starting point. The story is set in heaven, where Anne Frank – killed in a concentration camp – meets the Albanian Zef Bunga who was the victim of a blood feud. In afterlife the two 15-year-olds find out they have more in common than their violent deaths, and gradually grow closer to each other.
The music is accessible and colourful, veering between intense expressionism, sweet lyricism and even allusions to musical. The opera was created in Dutch and has since its premiere in 2015 been translated into Italian, English, German, French and Cantonese. In 2018 it was the only Dutch entry to be selected for performance at the renowned ISCM World Music Days in Beijing.
In 2020 Mathilde Wantenaar (1993) composed the opera Een lied voor de maan (A Song for the Moon), named after a children’s book by Toon Tellegen. It was produced within the frameworks of the Opera Forward Festival, in co-commission with Opera Zuid, Festival d’Aix-en-Provence and the opera houses of Brussels and Madrid. Due to Covid-19 A Song for the Moon was premiered in the online edition of 2021.
The shy and lonely mole writes a song for the Moon but fails to cheer it up. With the help of the other animals he finally succeeds, and realizes he must face his own uncertainties. The lyrical music references Latin and Gershwin and contains witty quotations of Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The production was highly successful with audience and press alike, and will tour internationally.
This article offers just a small selection of remarkable new Dutch operas over the past decade. Thanks to the tireless efforts of so many people and institutions, we may rest assured the supply of exciting new compositions and productions will continue to flow for years to come.
Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist specializing in modern and contemporary music. In 2014 she published the biography of conductor/pianist/composer Reinbert de Leeuw (adding 2 chapters for its 3rd edition in 2020). In 2018 Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht appeared, a compact book on musical developments from 1900 onward. Derks writes articles for magazines and websites and hosts 2 blogs: Contemporary Classical (English) and Klassiekvannu (Dutch). She occasionally contributes to the American new music blog I Care if You Listen.