Johann Sebastian Bach wrote passions and many cantatas, but never an opera. Maybe because he didn’t want to, maybe because he didn’t get around to it. A shame, according to director and director of Opera2Day Serge van Veggel, conductor Hernán Schvartzman and artistic director of the Nederlandse Bachvereniging Shunske Sato.
In 2019 Opera2Day and the Bach Society already made a pastiche, a combination of pieces of opera into a new whole, of opera pieces by Vivaldi. Halfway through the tour, the idea arose: shouldn’t we do something similar with Bach for the 100th anniversary of the Bach Society?
That required a completely different approach. After all, Vivaldi actually wrote operas, you only had to pick from them. Bach had to be made into an opera composer. After a year and a half of constructing, composing, writing and rehearsing, the result is now ready to go: JS Bach – The Apocalypse. Subtitle: ‘The opera that Bach never wrote’.
Happy gallows atmosphere
Last Saturday afternoon: in the foyer of Theater aan de Schie in Schiedam there is a confusingly cheerful gallows atmosphere. In their costumes, seventy choir members, extras and musicians seem to have just stepped out of the Middle Ages to quickly eat an egg sandwich before the dress rehearsal starts. Everyone is happy because the opera is finished, hooray. But.
Last night everyone saw the press conference, which opened stores but postponed the approaching apocalypse. Seventy Tantaluses have lunch here, who saw the premiere on January 22, which dangled before their eyes, pulled away for at least ten days.
And that while the story of JS Bach – The Apocalypse, according to Van Veggel, must be told now. Director Van Veggel wanted to tackle major themes with Bach’s music: social dissatisfaction, radicalization, and how an apocalypse starts with someone who is simply dissatisfied with something.
We think we are smarter than people from 500 years ago, but we are not
Thomas Höft librettist
Step 1: scenario
Van Veggel found everything he was looking for in the history of Jan van Leyden, the 16th-century Leiden tailor and actor who, as a fanatic Anabaptist with a group of Dutch and Frisian followers, took the German city of Münster and in 1534 had himself called king of ‘the Anabaptist kingdom of Muenster’. He turned it into a thoroughly sectarian city: goods became common property, polygamy was introduced (Van Leyden himself took 17 wives in one year), all books except the Bible were burned and everyone who did not follow the ten commandments or against Van Leyden entered was given the death penalty. Within a year this situation resulted in a city that starved to eat all the rats, until the actual bishop of Münster, Frans van Waldeck, recaptured the city. At least, if we are to believe the historical sources – later written at the behest of the bishop.
At the general, the result turns out to be a historical piece that aims to tell the story of Jan van Leyden (tenor Florian Sievers) as extensively as possible in two and a half hours. The stories of Jan Matthijs, the ‘prophet’ of the Anabaptists (counter tenor Sytse Buwalda), Bernard Rothmann, the charismatic Anabaptist chief preacher (baritone Mattijs van der Woerd) and Dieuwer Brouwersdatter, the first Münster wife of Jan van Leyden, crowned Queen Divara (mezzo-soprano Cecilia Amancay Pastawski).
Step 2: music
In order to find the music by Bach best suited to the story of Jan van Leyden, Van Veggel listened to all of Bach’s vocal works. Thirty of them, often consisting of several parts, eventually made it to the opera. The St Matthew Passion takes the cake with seven musical quotes. Five pieces are heard from the Missa in A. Never whole parts, but a lot of shredded fragments. Sometimes only a few sizes. The mastermind who composed all the pieces together is contemporary composer and baroque specialist Panos Iliopoulos. Bach’s share bets Iliopoulos at 78 percent, his at 22.
Step 3: text
Then telling the story as clearly as possible to that music was a monster job for librettist Thomas Höft, whose share of the lyrics is “100 percent!” is. Lyrically, nothing by Bach literally remained the same. Höft: „It is flattering to be Bach’s librettist. But it’s a strange project, because normally you have a scenario where text and music are added organically. Now both the story and the precise music were already there. Every word had to fit exactly to every accent. I had never worked like this before.”
Whether the opera should be in Dutch or in German (after all, it is about Dutch people in Germany) has been a question for a while, but in the end Van Veggel opted for German: „Bach wrote the German language in his music. Bach starts from the feeling of German language. Dutch would be nonsense.”
The effect for the listener in the general is a succession of whole and half aha experiences, from the very beginning: “The rats are defeated! The truth has triumphed and will guide us forever!” Heavens that sounds familiar, but what is it again? That new text confuses you. Oh of course, this comes from Hohe Messe. And this part is from Cum Sancto Spiritu. This way you can puzzle for two hours.
It’s a heavy title, The Apocalypse. The ‘prophet’ of the Anabaptists, Jan Matthijs, announced the end of times and a new Jerusalem on earth. Van Veggel: “The Anabaptists got the idea that they could also make the New Jerusalem themselves. That was Muenster. I wanted to make this opera because end-time thinking is everywhere and at all times. Now we have climate doom on the left, and on the right the belief that aliens will take over our world. We can learn from Münster that the end of time eventually became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, a world went down: the new world they had built themselves.”
Höft: “We think we are smarter than the people of 500 years ago, but we are not.”
But it must be asked: to construct an opera from music by Bach, the composer of almost divine status, and call it a Bach opera, isn’t that blasphemy? Van Veggel and conductor Schvartzman burst out at the same time in a piece from their own opera: „Blas-phee-mieee! That is pure Blasphemy!” Indeed, at first Van Veggel thought it was “a totally unholy, terrifying idea”.
But the arguments in favor piled up. Schvartzman: „Bach was a huge lover of Italian composers. He applied for a position in Dresden in 1733. Had he been given one, he would certainly have had to compose operas, because operas were popular in Dresden. Besides, if anyone often reused Bach’s music, it was him. He effortlessly recycled music originally composed for a secular cantata into an ecclesiastical piece.”
What at first sight appears to be the most defamatory piece in the performance by Bach, a satirical play by an Anabaptist in a tea cozy dressed as a bishop who allegedly assaults a choirboy while having his head blotted with wine from a chalice to the music of Bereite dich Zion from the Christmas Oratorio (new text: ‘Stop with those sins, those lusts!’), does indeed become a little less shocking when you know that Bach had already composed that piece for a non-religious cantata about Hercules. Van Veggel, laughing broadly: “It is actually a shame that Bach has used it for something religious.”
According to Van Veggel and Schvartzman, the question of whether Bach had agreed with this is an interesting one. Van Veggel: „Oh, I am sure that Bach would not have made it that way. He would have been much more innovative; the opera innovator of the 18th century. But Bach clearly looked for drama in his music. You just have to want to do that on stage.”
Bach would not have done the text that way either, librettist Höft is sure: „Bach would never have chosen this story in particular; a story with an evil side of Christianity. If Bach had written an opera, it would probably have been a cheerful Italian one. Yet you can do anything with Bach’s music, provided you do it in the right way; within the limits of Bach’s intention. Bach was a fantastically clear dramatist. You can’t write about love to music that’s obviously about aggression.” Schvartzman adds: “The best possible blasphemy is blasphemy that comes from within. Who can be frankly Bach-slanderous than the Netherlands Bach Society? If there’s one party that knows every note inside out, it’s them.” Höft: „And then you just have to think: Bach was a humorous man, I am sure of that. Don’t make it a serious Beethoven. Bach can take a joke.”
Back to reality: whether The Apocalypse will premiere soon at all is open to question. The performances must be played before the Bach Society’s St Matthew Tour in April. But starting mid-March does not seem an option, because then the financial loss would be too great. An online stream does not do the production justice, everyone agrees on that. Actually, nobody in Schiedam wants to think about scenarios. They prefer to focus on the dress rehearsal and the final adjustments. If not now, Bach – The Apocalypse will wait on the shelf for a better time, but that will be in a few years.
It certainly didn’t end well with Jan van Leyden (spoiler!). The king’s tortured body eventually hung in an iron cage from a high church tower for fifty years; a warning to anyone who once again wanted to build against the bishop in an ideal world of their own. A replica of the cage still hangs there.
J.S. Bach – De Apocalyps. By Opera2Day, the Netherlands Bach Society. Tour, subject to change, from 8/2, up to and including 13/3. Information: opera2day.nl
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A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 20, 2022