My preparations for a Thursday evening trip to Lincoln Center: studying the super-formula of Stockhausen’s 29-hour opera project, entitled Licht; choosing an outfit in the perfect shade of cerulean; girding myself for a panic attack similar to the one I experienced the last time I witnessed a section from Licht (Oktophonie). But one cannot really prepare oneself for truly intelligent, incredible art, and my first thought after experiencing Michaels Reise um die Erde was simply “whoa”.

Marco Blaauw (Trumpet) in Michaels Reise um die Erde as part of the Lincoln Center Festival 2013 © Klaus Rudolph
Marco Blaauw (Trumpet) in Michaels Reise um die Erde as part of the Lincoln Center Festival 2013
© Klaus Rudolph

Michaels Reise um die Erde is only the second act of the fourth part of Stockhausen’s massive, almost unhuman seven-part creation, but it packed a strong punch. Each section of Licht, named for each day in the week, leads to the next, so that the result is an unending, circular narrative, or “eternal spiral” according to Stockhausen. The celestial libretto (also by the composer) depicts three characters: Michael, Eve and Lucifer, each represented by a specific instrument (the trumpet in Michael’s case, the basset horn in Eve’s). Each day focuses on a different character or combination of characters, with widely varying arrangements of instruments. (Mittwoch, premièred by Birmingham Opera Company last year, incorporates a helicopter string quartet.)

Donnerstag aus Licht, which concentrates on Michael’s story, is associated with the planet Jupiter and the color blue (hence the careful attention to my attire). His journey, a sort of trumpet concerto, is not to Jupiter but around the earth, from Germany to New York, Japan, Bali, India, central Africa, and finally Jerusalem, where he undergoes crucifixion and ascension. Michael’s formula weaves its way through distortion and metamorphosis as fluidly as its character navigates his journey. Here, Michael was portrayed by the spectacular trumpet player Marco Blaauw. Mr Blaauw’s intricate and otherworldly playing was all the more impressive considering he was strapped into a rotating crane for much of the performance, sometimes playing while elevated and parallel to the stage floor as the crane swiveled and pivoted, then towards the end playing while suspended in midair and straddled by the Eve character, Nicola Jürgensen.

The music, performed by Ensemble musikFabrik and conducted by Peter Rundel, was top-notch throughout. Each character with whom Michael “conversed” via his trumpet was as excellent as the last. Just as striking was the visual component during these sections, when we were treated to close-ups of individual musicians and their extended techniques. A translucent screen hanging in front of the stage, which glowed bright blue before the performance, featured wondrous images related to the narrative in addition to these occasional close-ups. At one point, letters spilled across our vision; at another we were floating in a flesh-colored landscape of breasts and noses. Towards the beginning, as Mr Blaauw established Michael’s formula, green eels of light swam along the screen from his trumpet: ethereal visual echoes. And during the second part of Michael’s journey, flames exploded along the New York City skyline after a plane zipped across our sightline – just in case we hadn’t forgotten Stockhausen’s controversial remarks about 9/11.

The production, by Carlus Padrissa, Roland Olbeter and Franc Aleu, featured such consistently impressive and seamless visuals that I was in awe. Behind the veil sat groups of instrumentalists as well as a large round “earth” offering its own images. Michael, and eventually Eve, orbited around these displays, choreographed by Valentina Carrasco and wearing costumes by Chu Uroz. During Michael’s ascension, a dark figure swung incense down the aisle towards the stage. Some of the audience members found this unpleasant, judging by the sudden outbreak of coughing and whispering. But I enjoyed the multi-sensory experience (especially after last week’s The Blind) and felt even more enveloped in Stockhausen’s creation.

The music is slightly easier to describe than the mind-boggling visuals, though it was just as brilliant. During the brassy prologue, “Donnerstags-Gruß”, interstellar chords and pointillistic punctuations fell in layers on our ears from behind the blue screen. Throughout the next hour we heard the spirits of Michael and Eve and Lucifer embodied by timeless sounds circling around each other, culminating in an erotic musical duel between Michael and Eve, and then a fusion between the two instruments into one final trill. Two clarinettists, Carl Rosman and Fie Schouten, offered both visual and aural humor as the “swallow-pair”. And the dense score could not have been in better hands than those of Mr Rundel and musikFabrik.

After the final scene, marked visually by raindrops and then sprawling veins and arteries, we were greeted by the angelic chords of “Donnerstags-Abschied” bleeding across our chatter as we filed out of Avery Fisher. A choir of five trumpet players was bidding us goodbye from the upper tiers; in a way, though, they were also reminding us that this was not a final farewell, given the cyclical nature of Stockhausen’s opera. And so the performance became not an isolated experience in an assigned seat, but a little piece of the universe that we could carry with us out of the concert hall, where, fittingly, a telescope next to the Lincoln Center fountain offered a view of Saturn.

*****