Holland Festival: Brilliant and Unfussy

I went to Amsterdam for the first time in June this year and wrote about the Holland Festival for Opera Canada. The print/digital issue is just about to come out, and this piece will come with different photos, different dek and a better layout.

LETTER  FROM AMSTERDAM

A view from the Dutch National Opera
A view from the Dutch National Opera

Torontonians who dare move around their hometown on a bicycle will find themselves disbelieving the very possibility of Amsterdam, a city specifically planned for two-wheeled transit and adventuring. No corner of the city is out of reach; the lanes now even run through the Rijskmuseum. Amsterdam’s uncompromising bikeability is how I found myself breezily crossing dozens of kilometres in between Holland Festival per­formances last June. From my rented garret on Haarlemmerweg out west to the magnificent De Dageraad heritage housing in the south (the city has a proud history of employing star architects for low-income housing projects), from the docklands in the north to the National Maritime Museum out east, the city was a work of art as appealing as anything on offer at its long-standing performing-arts festival.

And both are equally accommodating to visitors. The Hol­land Festival website is available in English in its entirety, and there are English and Dutch subtitles to all live performances (and at Dutch National Opera year-round, too). Every ticket-booth staffer, usher and greeter I encountered spoke English, but then that’s the case for Amsterdam in general, where every facet of the service industries, private or public, proved itself gener­ously Anglophone. Holland Festival tickets will give you access to any of Amsterdam’s public-transport streetcar and bus lines for free, from three hours before to four hours after a performance. There was free Wi-Fi at all the major cultural institutions I visited—the Stadsschouwburg Theatre, Amsterdam Museum, Maritime Museum, the Concertgebouw café, Stedelijk Museum, the patio café on top of the central Bibliotheek, and the Dutch National Opera. Unlike many North American opera houses that have restricted areas for donor receptions and private gatherings and train staff in crowd control, the DNO is one of the most audience laissez-faire opera establishments around. Due to the half-circle layout of the hall, there are practically no bad seats: do not hesitate to book any of the cheaper seats on the Second Balcony, including the higher rows.

A city less than half the size of Toronto, Amsterdam easily sus­tains an opera house with more than twice as many productions a season as the Canadian Opera Company. Yes, there are tourists to count in—estimated at about 17 million a year—but they tend to visit for the museums, the canals and the Red Light District rather than the performing arts. The Holland Festival itself is in June, a month when the tourist onslaught is somewhat lesser than in always-hectic July and August. Created in 1947, the festival is known today for bold programming tipped in favour of the con­temporary (commissioning, co-producing and presenting). If a classic is performed, it will be a new take, such as, this year, Haydn’s Die Schöpfung: it was performed by the B’rock Orchestra and Col­legium Vocale Ghent conducted by René Jacobs with simultaneous projections by video artist Julian Rosefeldt. The camera moved in complicity with Jacobs’ tempi across vast areas of arid land and abandoned industrial sites, sometimes showing groups of humans walking across the rough hills and plains. Two days later, at the opera house, I saw the Stefan Herheim-directed production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, a stirring meditation on the closet, artistic creation and sublimation, and loneliness. The composer himself appears as a non-speaking character, on stage in almost every scene—and also as Liza’s quiet and self-effacing fiancé Yeletsky, and Liza and Polina’s personal pianist.

My festival experience began however with a straight theatre piece—if there’s anything at all straight about Joël Pommerat’s innovative contemporary reconstruction of the first stage of the French Revolution, titled Ça ira (1) Fin de Louis. The National Arts Centre’s French-language division is one of the co-producers of this electrifying piece, and the play was in fact performed at the NAC in Ottawa last March, unnoticed by the English-speaking media in Canada. Over the course of four hours and thirty minutes at the Stadsschouwburg theatre, the audience wit­nessed the creation and became part of the first National Assembly, the Third Estate transforming its powerlessness into the source of legitimacy for the nascent constitutional monarchy. We’re only at the outset of the revolution, of course, so the piece ends as things ever so slightly begin to get out of hand. During the raging debates, the actors and about 15 extras who cheer, heckle and applaud are planted in the audience, stand up for their contri­butions, discreetly move around the auditorium and dip behind the stage to come back as different characters. Pom­merat based everything on historical documents, but the piece unfolds as a great drama of a collective. We witness the way the crowd incrementally forms itself into a political and historical subject, how a special-interest grievance may or may not morph into a public good, and how a feeling of oppression works itself into political consciousness.

Much of the Holland Festival’s theatrical and visual/media arts programming engages with pressing issues on the planet right now: it’s just about impossible to find anything on the program that serves as purely entertaining escapism. Wunderbaum, a Dutch-Flemish actors collective, performed a piece on the future of sexual relations in the digital era. In The Dark Ages, Swiss dir­ector Milo Rau brought together a group of actors from Bosnia, Germany and Russia to retell their own experiences of exile, displacement and homelessness as part of the “dark history of Europe’s unification.” In her interactive sound installation, Gardens Speak, Lebanese-British artist Tania El Khoury reconstructs the lives of 10 Syrians who were killed by Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. The festival also cultivates the art of the panel and public conversation. At one such event, Chinese philosopher Tu Weiming talked about Europe from a Chinese perspective. Another panel, which I was lucky to attend, looked at the evolution of listening and the classical-music audience. Among the speakers were Jutta Toelle of Frankfurt’s Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Henkjan Honing, who teaches Musical Cognition at Amsterdam University, and Austrian composer Olga Neuwrith, who talked about using binaural sound and the “spacialization” of music in her own piece at the festival, Le Encantadas o le avventure nel mare delle meraviglie (The Enchanted Isles or Adventures in a Sea of Wonders). It was performed at one of the out-of-the-way festival locations, Westergasfabriek, where the Ensemble Intercontemporaine con­ducted by Matthias Pintscher was strategically divided into islands, with electronics managed by sound engineers from the Centre Pompidou’s IRCAM in Paris.

Another contemporary piece at the festival, The Transmigration of Morton Feldman, had its world premiere online—and lives on at mortonf.net. The cinematic digital opera with elements of video gaming—levels and perspectives can be chosen at various points—features music by Morton Feldman and Anat Spiegel. In the film, vocal artist Joan La Barbara wanders around Amsterdam pursued by, or so she thinks, a reincarnated Morton Feldman. There’s a significant choose-your-own-adventure aspect to this piece, which the festival co-commissioned with the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brus­sels, and with this director Sjaron Minailo might have discovered a way to make sup­posedly difficult and inaccessible contemporary music an exciting pursuit.Just give the audience something to do and a bit of freedom, and it will follow you where it otherwise wouldn’t. The Art of Listening panel also suggested as much, offering examples of live performance where the movement of listeners and their positioning through the performance space made the music a more compelling and individual experience.

This year’s Holland Festival was Artistic Director Ruth Mack­enzie’s second: the former General Director of the Manchester International Festival and director of London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad was appointed in Amsterdam in 2014. Will the already international, in-tune-with-the-times and innovative festival become even more so during her tenure? Will the English-speaking media and culture lovers that travel to Edinburgh, Lucerne, Bayreuth, Munich and Salzburg in Europe’s summer festival season take a turn to the Low Countries? In some respects, hopefully not. It’s better not to have the queues at the venues, ticket prices in three-digits, ticket purchasing as a blood sport, and a fleet of publicists with one’s festival. Those who already appreciate it will surely want their Holland Festival to remain brilliant and unfussy.

Lydia Perović

for Opera Canada

Joel Pommerat & compagnie, post-Revolution curtain call
Joel Pommerat & compagnie, post-Revolution curtain call
From inside the Amsterdam Museum reconstruction of the first dyke-owned bar in Amsterdam

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