KOPERNIKUS – Opéra – rituel de mort

Opera House, Wellington

01/03/2020 - 02/03/2020

New Zealand Festival of the Arts 2020

Production Details

A ritual opera of death made for the living  

Visionary director Peter Sellars resurrects the rarely staged opera of the Quebecois composer Claude Vivier, Kopernikus. Sellars, renowned for his radical and creative productions, has described this intimate work as a “mind-blowing” mix of The Magic Flute, Tristan and Isolde and Alice in Wonderland.

Performed by Grammy Award-winning Roomful of Teeth ensemble and instrumentalists Ensemble L’Instant Donné, this “unimaginably beautiful” opera (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) takes audiences on a journey of reconciliation and transcendence following loss and death, guided by the genius of Mozart, Wagner and Lewis Carroll.

Kopernikus seeks to reorient the audience’s relationship to the process of dying through a vivid imagining of the beauty and glory of the afterlife.

Opera House, Wellington
Sun 1 Mar – Mon 2 Mar 2020
$59 – $139 (excluding booking fees).  
Visit www.festival.co.nz

Guest Curator Lemi Ponifasio:

“Peter Sellars is one of the greatest living artists. He is somebody that proves a perspective that is unexpected. Somebody who will just blow things up in a way that you’d never imagine.

“Peter will present two staged works, the exquisitely intimate opera Kopernikus and the stunning dance work Flexn in Porirua with young people from New York. Peter will also participate in Talanoa Mau, an historic two-day gathering that places art at the centre of crucial social reflection and public decision-making.”

Creative Director Marnie Karmelita:
“In a major coup for our Festival, we are thrilled to welcome visionary director Peter Sellars as part of Guest Curator Lemi Ponifasio’s series.”

Peter Sellars

Peter Sellars has become known for his pioneering reviews of major works in the repertoire and for his collaborations with a number of particularly creative artists. He has directed operas for the Glyndebourne Festival, the Lyric Opera in Chicago, the Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam, the Opéra national de Paris, the Salzburg Festival, the San Francisco Opera, and the Teatro Real in Madrid. In collaboration with the composer John Adams, he has directed several operas: Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, El Niño, Doctor Atomic, A Flowering Tree, The Gospel According to the Other Mary. And in 2017 Girls of the Golden West at the San Francisco Opera. From Kaija Saariaho, Peter Sellars played a decisive role in the creations of Love by far, Adriana Mater, Only the Sound Remains. In addition to the successful production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at the resounding Salzburg Festival in Amsterdam in 2017, Sellars recently staged Schumann’s Das Paradis und die Peri for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and created a new one. John Adams’ Doctor Atomic staged at the Santa Fe Opera House in July 2018. Peter Sellars has been artistic director of several festivals: in 1990 and 1993 in Los Angeles, in 2002 at the Adelaide Festival. In 2006, on the occasion of the celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart, he directed the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna, which for one month brought together artists from diverse cultures, in all artistic disciplines including visual arts and architecture. In 2016, Peter Sellars was Artistic Director for Music at the Ojai Festival in California.

Peter Sellars teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles in the Department of Arts and Cultures of the World; he is the resident curator of the Telluride Film Festival. He has also been a mentor for the Rolex Arts Initiative. He was a laureate of the MacArthur Fellowship, Gish Prize, Polar Music Prize; he has received the Erasmus Prize for his contribution to European culture and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2014, Musical America magazine named him “Artist of the Year”.

Michael Schumacher

Michael Schumacher is an artist whose performances are based on both classical and contemporary dance. He has been a member of many innovative dance companies, including Ballet Frankfurt, Twyla Tharp Dance Company, Feld Ballet, Pretty Ugly Dance Company and Magpie Music Dance Company. He has collaborated with Peter Sellars, William Forsythe, Dana Caspersen, Sylvie Guillem, Mark Haim, Paul Selwyn Norton and Anouk van Dijk.Active as a dancer, choreographer and teacher, Michael Schumacher has developed personal improvisation techniques. He has joined many pioneering artists like Han Bennink, Katie Duck, Jiri Kylian, Mary Oliver, Kirstie Simson, Alex Waterman and Jin Xing. In 2008, Michael Schumacher received the Gouden Zwaan and Jiri Kylian Ring awards. He lives in Amsterdam and teaches, in workshops around the world, the analysis of movement and improvisation.

Roomful of Teeth

Roomful of Teeth is a Grammy Award-winning vocal project dedicated to reimagining the expressive potential of the human voice. Through study with masters from vocal traditions the world over, the eight-voice ensemble continually expands its vocabulary of singing techniques and, through an ongoing commissioning process, forges a new repertoire without borders.

Founded in 2009 by Brad Wells, Roomful of Teeth gathers annually at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams, Massachusetts, where they’ve studied with some of the world’s top performers and teachers in Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, Broadway belting, Inuit throat singing, Korean P’ansori, Georgian singing, Sardinian cantu a tenore, Hindustani music, Persian classical singing and Death Metal singing. Commissioned composers include Rinde Eckert, Fred Hersch, Merrill Garbus (of tUnE-yArDs), William Brittelle, Toby Twining, Missy Mazzoli, Julia Wolfe, Ted Hearne and Ambrose Akinmusire, among many others.

Ensemble L’Instant Donné

The instrumental ensemble L’Instant Donné has the particularity of interpreting contemporary music without a conductor in groups of up to 10 musicians. Established in 2002, the ensemble brings together a team of 11people, including nine musicians. The operation is collegial, collectively making artistic and economic choices, and organising concerts, schedules and tours. The ensemble performs a recent repertoire as well as selected pieces from the classical period and associates itself with regular partners including vocal ensembles and singers.

Ensemble L’Instant Donné performs about 30 concerts a year in France and abroad. The ensemble collaborates with the main European radios. In June 2018, a double CD appeared on the NoMadMusic label devoted to the works of Gérard Pesson. Ensemble L’Instant Donné is “associated ensemble” at the New Montreuil Theater from 2018 to 2021.

Creative Team
Composed by Claude Vivier
Directed by Peter Sellars
Dancer-choreographer and collaborator of Peter Sellars:  Michael Schumacher
Dramaturge:  Antonio Cuenca Ruiz
Costume:  Sonia de Sousa
Lighting design:  Seth Reiser


Roomful of Teeth 
Soprano:  Estelí Gomez
Soprano:  Martha Cluver 
Mezzo-soprano:  Virginia Warnken Kelsey 
Contralto:  Abigail Lennox 
Baryton-Martin:  Dashon Burton
Baritone:  Thann Scoggin 
Bass:  Cameron Beauchamp 

Ensemble L’Instant Donné 
Oboe:  Sylvain Devaux
Clarinet 1:  Mathieu Steffanus
Clarinet 2:  Nicolas Fargeix
Clarinet 3:  Juliette Adam
Trumpet:  Matthias Champon
Trombone:  Mathieu Adam
Violin:  Saori Furukawa
Video Actor:  Pauline Cheviller 

Stage Manager:  Pamela Salling
Technical Coordination and Tours:  François Couderd
Sound Engineer:  Randall Squires

Production:  Festival d’Automne à Paris
Co-production:  KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen, Théâtre de la Ville (Paris), Théâtre du Châtelet, Nouveau théâtre de Montreuil et Théâtre du Capitole (Toulouse)

Theatre , Opera ,

A 'rambling dissertation on life and death'

Review by John Button 03rd Mar 2020

Claude Vivier led a depressingly difficult life; orphaned at three, originally destined to be a priest, openly gay, becoming eventually probably Canada’s most pre-eminent composer.  

He died in 1983, murdered by a rent boy in Paris when he was 34.

In the 1970s he studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne, and although there is much in Kopernikus that is completely individual, the influence of Stockhausen is hard to ignore. [More]


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Impressive musicianship and intriguingly full of unanswered questions

Review by Georgia Jamieson Emms 02nd Mar 2020

The rarely performed Kopernikus by Canadian Charles Vivier is an astonishing piece of composition, but it is not the visual feast we are accustomed to seeing in the opera house. It doesn’t need to be.

This is a chamber opera, and the focus is on the music and the opera’s themes. Director Peter Sellars has almost created a semi-staged choral piece, as the ensemble of eight singers carry tablets for much of the production, like choir folders.  

I am never sure what to do before attending an unknown opera; should I read up on it beforehand, so I’m better prepared (and/or am told how I’m supposed to feel upon seeing it), or should I go along completely ignorant and wait to see what impression it leaves on me? Those without a programme are left rather in the dark about what is going on; those with the programme are able to read the excellent notes from RNZ Concert’s Clarissa Dunn, and then view the performance with a much deeper understanding of what is taking place. 

A man is lying dead on a large table, ‘laid out’ for the mourners – or people we think are the mourners – to pay their respects. We are introduced to the central character, Agni, who appears to bear no relation to the dearly departed and calls upon “visionaries of the past”. The premise is that the dead will meet the likes of Merlin, Mozart, the Queen of the Night, Wagner and Tristan and Isolde on his journey from life to death.

I am excited to hear these ‘voices across time’. The ensemble, the gathered mourners, reveal themselves to be “pilgrims from beyond time”, “migrants of the sacred galaxies”, which is not far from my initial guess that they might be some incarnation of angels, or God’s henchmen in their surgical-looking white uniforms. They explain that “love is here to reveal death. Shining peace.”

So far, so good. Unfortunately after the establishment of the “plot” not a lot happens.

The “pilgrims from beyond time” leap from representing one character to the next, but it is unclear who they are and, for the most part, what they are singing about. Half of the opera is sung in French with surtitles, the other half is a kind of mash-up language (created by Vivier himself) with no translation available, leaving the audience to struggle on, attempting to come to their own conclusions.

The confusion is heightened further by a fairly static show, visually, until, sixty-five minutes into the performance, the dead man suddenly sits up. This sends ripples of astonishment through the audience; the dead man begins to move and contort his body as if he is being exorcised. Is he crossing over? Have the “visionaries of the past” succeeded in guiding him to shining peace, that is death?

There is no set to speak of, simply a raised dais for the on-stage orchestra, also clad in white. It is a rare pleasure to be able to see the musicians in an opera, and in this case, to be able to marvel at their skill. The instruments – oboe, three clarinets, trumpet, trombone and violin – are woven into the fabric, often mirroring and complementing the intergalactic choir, other times at odds with them. For the most part the performance is dimly lit, an ethereal glow around the musicians. The entire mouth of the Opera House is exposed, every beam, the entire lighting rig, the brick walls; it seems unnecessary to stage this piece in an opera house if there is to be no attempt at creating a space for the action.

Kopernikus‘ strength is in the music itself, and Roomful of Teeth are such an accomplished ensemble that they make seemingly easy work of an extremely challenging score. Multiple vocal techniques are used to create the striking ambience, everything from Schoenberg-style Sprechstimme, to whistling, ululation, howling and wailing heard in many cultures at funerals, humming, even the beep-boop-beep sound of a little green man in an alien invasion movie.  

There is also some extremely beautiful singing. Stunningly assured dissonances, duets sung in tritones, interspersed with melody in the Romantic sense of the word, make for a wonderful kaleidoscope of sound that is equal parts evocative, atmospheric, stirring and simmering.

It is impressive to think about just how difficult it is to pitch one’s note off someone else’s yawn, such is the musicianship of Roomful of Teeth. All the performers are excellent, but the voice of Esteli Gomez stands out in particular, in part because she seems to have the meatiest, more lyrical of vocal lines. The American soprano is a specialist in Early Music as well as being a champion of contemporary music, and her Baroque roots can be heard in her bright, thrilling tone.

There is a difference between ‘enjoyable’ and ‘entertaining’, and Kopernikus for me is the former. I don’t think it is intended to entertain but rather to intrigue. At times I feel as if I am missing something, as if I’ve walked into a conversation half-way through and don’t know what anyone is talking about – and then I wonder if that is the whole point, for death, like this opera, is full of unanswered questions, and as mere humans on a ‘small earth’, leading ‘subtle lives’, we must accept that we will never fully understand the mysteries of the universe.


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