OPERA2DAY presents the world premiere of Mariken in the garden of delights at the Koninklijke Schouwburg in The Hague. An opera with the collaboration of an impressive list of artists, including composer Calliope Tsoupaki, Asko|Schönberg and actress Hannah Hoekstra as Mariken. But will you achieve success with an opera, with modern-classical music moreover and Middle Dutch text? Director and deviser Serge van Veggel is convinced of it. With him and Hoekstra, we dive into a Hieronymus Bosch-like world full of devilry and penance.
Serge van Veggel, neerland scholar and artistic director of OPERA2DAY, had been toying with the idea of making an opera himself for some time. 'In doing so, I firstly wanted a starting point in early music, the specialism of our conductor and musical director Hernán Schvartzman. Secondly, I enjoyed doing something with our own Dutch heritage. I started looking around in my bookcase, because of my education there is quite a lot in there. At Mariken van Nieumeghen I immediately thought: yes! Often, when you read on, you think: oh no, not after all, but this was immediately: Boom! Mugshot! Great! And the play was first published in 1515, so I thought: let's do it in 2015. That was a long way off at the time. Since then, I've sat on my knees for six years wondering whether no one would take my idea!'
A quick reminder. Living with her uncle near Nijmegen, Mariken, in a desperate situation, appeals to God or the devil for help. The devil, in the guise of the young man Moenen, promises to teach her all languages and the seven liberal arts in exchange for her love. For seven years she lives in sin with him in Antwerp, then she repents. Moenen feels betrayed and drops her high from the sky. Full of broken bones but alive, Mariken goes with her uncle in search of penance. She eventually finds it with the pope, who leaves her in chains for many years. Finally, the archangel Gabriel redeems her.
Is this really a story of our time?
Van Veggel: 'Yes. The characters are all magnifications of real things, which makes the story timeless. The devil is also Moenen, an ordinary boy, a kind of loverboy. We didn't name it that way, but the myth is about a situation that still occurs today: Mariken is sent into the world, she doesn't know it anymore for a while, someone comes and seduces her with mountains of gold, and in the end she wants out again.'
Hannah Hoekstra: 'As a young girl, you don't know how bad things can go wrong. And the rest of the story is also universal. Where are Mariken's parents, anyway? She lives with an uncle. The same could happen now. She is sent out to run errands, goes to sleep at an aunt's because she is too late to get back. Yes, maybe you would send a text message now, there was no such thing back then. Although there is even a mobile phone somewhere in the play.'
Where is the conscience?
But atonement? Is that still alive in this day and age?
Hoekstra: "The audience will wonder: penance, how do you do it? Mariken does penance by wearing a chain, like this, around her neck. She chooses this herself, she could also have said: fuck off with your chains. As a human being you still do penance, if it is good, but it has indeed disappeared a bit from our society. I often wonder: where is that conscience anyway? OK, we know Darwin nowadays, and we don't need to pray to Jesus or Allah, but I do miss a coherent conscience on which we act. Everything is all about yourself, everything is a competition, everyone feels like a failure if they haven't achieved something. I really hope there will be more connection in society again. And I notice something of that myself now that I am suddenly communicating with an orchestra, through a conductor. That togetherness is a warm bath. When I was asked to do this, I immediately thought: this is so cool! I don't know if it will work, I'm just going to give it a try'.
Van Veggel: 'I struggled more with external forgiveness than with penance. Penance can also be: regretting something, not being able to forgive yourself and keep saying to yourself: this was wrong. In theatre, that takes on a mythical form. But forgiveness I found more difficult. Throughout the play, Mariken is guided by factors from outside: the devil, the church... I therefore made it into her forgiving herself at the end. I also saw that as a timeless translation of the Christian idea. Forgiveness, also towards yourself. Love the other as yourself, you can also turn that around: love yourself as yourself. In the original play, Mariken lives another two years after forgiveness, but I made her die at that point. I didn't find it so interesting to show her doing the dishes in the convent.'
Not too bad for opera
Isn't an opera with a medieval theme and modern music elitist?
Van Veggel: 'Our ambition is to attract audiences who never go to opera, such as teenagers. There is no nicer audience than that. You have to be incredibly good to catch them. That says something about our level of ambition. If you put down a very good singer, you feel the respect. We look for forms to make that miracle happen. We do that, for instance, by working with Hannah as an actress between the singers, but Calliope Tsoupaki also starts from ráking people. Above all, we have to fight the prejudice against opera. Once they are in, the reaction often ranges from 'it's not so bad for opera' until you have really won them over and they say, 'I'm going to join a choir too!' We hope to contribute to that restoration of confidence in opera. Yes, and of course modern music is all ghetto, but Calliope's music is really communicative and accessible.'
Hoekstra: 'Mariken has all the ingredients for an incoherent whole, but it works like a charm! It is accessible because you get a taste of everything: opera, theatre, music... it sounds terrible when I say it like that, but in Calliope Tsoupaki's music there is something for everyone. And the story... it's very simple, everyone understands it, while the more practised stage viewer can discover plenty extra in it.'
Hannah, the idea was that as an actress amidst singers, you convey the alienation Mariken feels as an innocent virgin in sinful Antwerp. Is that how it works?
'If all goes well, the audience can identify with me the most. I am closest to what you do in normal life, which is talking. The singers, the music portray the dark underworld of the devil on the one hand, and the world of feelings, the atmosphere on the other. Sometimes it tells something different from what you see at the time. When the language is still fairly light-hearted or naive, for instance, you can already hear from the music: this is going in a different direction! Just as film music can do. '
You work with three musical ensembles. How does that work?
Van Veggel: 'The Tetraktys Ensemble brings a sound inspired by the Middle Ages, with a certain intimacy. The Cappella Amsterdam choir gives a modern sound context. Where it gets rawer you hear Asko|Schönberg. It is an alternation. The three acts are arranged according to the three panels of The garden of delights By Hieronymus Bosch. The first act is paradise, in our case the secluded court at Marikens uncle's house. The second act is the garden of lust, the period with Moenen in Antwerp. The third panel is hell, with us the chains of the church, ironically. The music always matches it. In the first act naive, fairytale-like. In the second rawer, more violent, there's all sorts of things in it, some pieces are almost pop or have Arabic influences. The music of the third act is very serene, a kind of oratorio that calls for meditation.'
Hannah, you also work a lot for TV or film. Is that different from working for theatre?
Yes, but this opera production is different. In theatre, for instance, you step in rather blankly. Especially Theu [Boermans, artistic director Nationale Toneel, ed.] doesn't want you to know your text already. That happens during rehearsals, he directs every word. For TV, you have to know your text and without rehearsing, immediately, bam, film. But here, with that Middle Dutch, I was told three weeks in advance, during my holiday: you do know that you are supposed to know your text, don't you? I had no idea how to pronounce it, I was given midifiles to practise, which I sat listening to and repeating until I was in agony. It was terrible, I sat in that room cursing: now it won't work again, and what am I actually saying? But in the end I did know my lines. And now, fortunately, I am really playing it.
'I was afraid at first that the music and the lyrics would not communicate well with each other, but it's exactly right. When I listen to what the singers sing, I respond in language. The singers gradually become more narrative, and I more musical; it draws together more and more.'