In the 1980's, while still studying at University, I looked to inexpensive ways to satisfy my blossoming passion for the world of opera. For a Dutch twen who did not yet master the Italian language, Leo Riemens’ Great Opera Book proved a splendid starting point.
With Riemens in hand, you were able to follow most opera broadcasts on the radio, since he provided full plot synopsises along with indications as to where exactly the most significant arias, duets and ensembles were. from there it was easy to pick up a full, Dutch language libretto for a nickel or a dime, in the local book antiquariats of Amsterdam. These were old libretti, going back to to the 1930's, 40's and 50's, when operas in Holland were still sung in the Dutch language. Among others, I bought Dutch language libretti of Aida, De troubadour (Il trovatore), De toverfluit (The magic flute), De ontvoering uit het serail (The abduction from the serail), Godenschemering (Götterdämmerung) or De blanke dame (La dame blanche), to mention but a few. These little booklets also proved more handy than the over sized LP textbooks, that made you flip between Italian, French, germand and, if you were lucky, English translations.
Apart from their immediate usefulness, I also tremendously enjoyed the translation in old style Dutch.Sometimes you didn't even need the music, because the verse was so colorful that you imagined some archaic Dutch voice from the past reciting them; voices like the Dutch equivalents of, say, Milton Cross, J.F.K. or anything from Eleanor Roosevelt to Jacky O. The latter would translate pretty much to our former Queen, juliana, whose life would have inspired a 19th Century Dutch composer like Van Bree to compose a fancy opéra comique Dutch style.
That today's Dutch composers haven't felt the urge has many reasons, among them the rise of film and television. This is not the place to look into that. though, since this is the place for my first encounter with a vocal classical music fragmtn sung in the Dutch language. At first, it was the composer of ‘Een bloemken’ (a little flower) that caught my eye: Nicolai. Wasn't that the composer of Martha of de markt van Richmond which contained the famous aria ‘Letzte Rose’!
The name of the tenor on the scratchy disc from 1904 or 1905 didn't immediately ring a bell then: Ernest van Dyck. Now, every opera lover will recognize the moment where the ear can suddenly open up to a voice, intoxicating one with the beautiful magic that music can bring to human beings. Ernest van Dyck's voice touched me. I wasn't surprised when i subsequently discovered that this was the creator of Massenets' Werther, though I was stunned when I read tht he was born in Lier, Flanders, as Ernest van Dijck. His voice had a timbre that is best described by his own singing of a phrase from Schumann's ‘Ich grolle nicht’, where he makes a beautiful emphasis on the word ‘diamantenpracht’ (as beautiful as diamonds). That was exactly what I heard in Nicolai's ‘Een bloemken’:
Daer staet een bloemken in ghenen dal, (There grows a flower in yonder valley)
Dat bloemken wil ic u schenken (That flower I want to give to you)
Ende als ic ver van u wesen sal (And when I will be far from you)
Dan sult ghi mijns ghedenken (It will make you remember me)
So diemael als ghi dit bloemken siet (For every time when you look at it)
So sal het spreken beghinnen: (It will start to talk to you: )
Vergheet mij niet, vergheet mij niet (Forget me now, forget me not)
Ic sal u altijd minnen. (For I will always love you)
The combination of the sentimental melody with Van Dijck's perfumed, nasal voice, carried me back to my childhood days, when I could dream away on Dutch folklore songs like ‘Daar bij die molen’ (Near the mill). And that voice! What a hauntingly beautiful voice!
I nver manged to understand why Van Dyck's exceedingly rare recordings from 1904 and 1905 are so underrated among connaisseurs. What I later did manage to understand, was that the composer of ‘Een bloemken’ was not the German Otto, but the Leiden, Holland born Willem Frederik Gerard Nicolai (1829 – 1896). Although W. F. G. did not compose any operas, I can still look mesmerized to the titles of his completely forgotten cantates like Hanske van Gelder (Hans of Gelder), Das Lied von der Glocke (Song of the bell – on Schiller's text) and the Thorbecke-cantate (Thorbecke was a famous, pioneering Dutch labor politician).
Although Ernest Van Dyck did not record them, I couldn't help wondering how these would sound?...
HRegrettably, there are no possibilities to examine Dutch operas or cantatas from the days of Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Wagner, Verdi or Puccini. Even the tradition of singing foreign opera's in dutch translation was abandoned in the decade after the war. From the late 1950's onwards, the eprformance practive increasingly turned to original language performances. This trend was largely responsible for the dismantling f the Dutch Opera as an ensemble in 1965. The reason for this was simply that there was no longer a direct need to employ Dutch vocalists, on the contrary: in those days Dutch vocalists had tremendous problems in languages such as French or Italian (in reverse, this situation occasionally turned the other way around in later years, such as when the Dutch national Opera engaged the Polish coloratura Elzbieta Szmytka for the creation of Nel/Polyandus in Peter-Jan Wagemans’ beautifully staged opera Legende).
Peter-Jan Wagemans: Legende
Mr. S. A. M. Bottenheim
Mr S. A. M. Bottenheim: De Opera in Nederland (1946)
And yet... could it really be true that not a single Dutch opera had been composed in opera's golden age, the 19th Century? It was Mr S. A. M. Bottenheim's fascinating little book 'The opera in The Netherlands' that brought the answer, which spelled that there had been hundreds of Dutch operas composed since 1680. Most peculiarly, this antholgy, dating back to 1946, proved to be the only standard work on Dutch opera. The single reprint with additions that appeared in the 1980's,demonstrates in itself the ongoing struggle that opera in The Netherlands has been for the last 335 years.
De voorstelling waarvan wordt aangenomen dat ze de componist Carolus Hacquart voorstelt, de man die de eerste Nederlandstalige opera componeerde.
All started with the 1680 opera De triomferende min (The maid triumphant), by composer Carolus Hacquart and librettist Dirk Buysero. Bottenheim dubbed it the first genuine Dutch opera, composed to commemorate the Treaty of Nimwegen that was signed two years before. The composition serves to demonstrate some of the difficulties that go with determining what is and what is not a 'Dutch' opera. To begin with, Hacquarts was born in brugues, then of course still part of the republic of Seven United Dutch Proinces, but still... the Flemish consider him theirs. Then there are numerous French opera's composed for the French Opera in The Hague. even the questionwhat exactly is and is not to be considered an opera causes more controversion in the Netherlands, than elsewhere, in countries with a stronger operatic tradition. Admittedly, it isn't difficult to establish if any given Art & Flying work is more focused on the music of the trapeze artist act. However, to do so you would need the score... and most of them are considered lost or preserved fragementary. Which also goes for many 18th and 19th Century scores. But even then, not everyone agrees that De triomferende min of De bruiloft van Cloris en Roosje (The wedding of Cloris and Roosje) are operas.
Cover art for the 6LP set '400 Jaar Nederlandse Muziek' (Residentie orkest, 1979)
Admittedly, I was curious after what The Triomferende min would be like, although, at that tme, there wasn't a recording of sorts to sample the work from. The same went for ALL other titles that Bottenheim mentioned. Initially, the only way to satisfy at least some part of my curiosity was by visiting the library in order to borrow the 6LP-set of the The Hague Residentie Orchestra, titles '400 years of Dutch Music'. Apart from some interesting pictures of composers that Bottenheim mentioned, there were no vocal fragments features, whcih would remain the trend in the cd era.
Until this very day I can be puzzled bythe fact that even a distinguished opera label as CPO, in its Julius Röntgen series, restricts itself to his symphonic and chamber music, while this romantic era composer has produced a fistful of operas. Not to mention the fact that such composers usually regarded theiroperas as their opus magnums, whereas they composed most of their symphonic and, particularly, their chamber music for survival's sake.
Regardless, '400 years of Dutch Music' prived an important publication, since for the first (nd in some cases also for the last) time there was at least some music documented by once important Dutch opera composers such as Johannes Bernardus van Bree (1801-1857), Jan Brandts-Buys (1868-1939), Johan Wagenaar (1862-1941), Hendrik Andriessen (1892), Alphons Diepenbrock (1862-1921) and Daniël Ruyneman (1886-193). Thus, I managed to get at least an idea of the musical idiom in whcih they composed theoir operas of ere.
Een tipje van de sluier…
Cover art for the 6LP set 'Catherina van Rennes' (1983)
Another peek into the world of Dutch vocal art was provided by the 1983 4LP box set 'Catherina van Rennès', celebrating the 125th memorial of the birth of this composer and voice teacher. Apart from her own compositions, the LP set featured an array of recordings that doumented the history of Dutch Artsong. Suddenly there were vocal excerpts available of such composers as ‘H. van Tussenbroek, J. Worp, J. Wierts, Viotta, Julius Röntgen, Johan Wagenaar, Willem Mengelberg(as composer), W. Rettig, Hendrik Andriessen, Tetterode and many others', mentioned the flap text. The gorgeous booklet was filled with pictures of all sorts of names that I knew from Bottenheim, names that occasionally also had been mentioned in Riemens when he wrote about performances in the 1950's or 60's, but that you had never ever seen in photographs or drawings. Names such as those of sopranos Sophie Offermans-van Hove, Aaltje Noordewier and Jo Vincent (to whom the boxset was dedicated), mezzo sopranos Julia Culp, Ans Stroink en Aafje Heynis, altos Pauline de Haan, Tilly Koenen en Cornelie van Zanten, tenors Jacques van Kempen and Louis van Tulder, as well as the baritone Jos Orelio.
Apart from singers' portraits, there was alsoa section with biographies and photographs of composers such as Jan W. F. Brandts-Buys, Hendrik Andriessen, Alphons Diepenbrock, Daniël de Lange, Joh. Worp, and Richard Hol, as well as portraits of the composing conductors Willem Kes, Willem Mengelberg, Kor Kuiler and, finally: W. F. G. Nicolai!
In the pre internet era, that was pretty much all that one could find, apart from the usual two suspects that kept popping up and on in record antiquariats, for about $ 2,50: the 1969 composition of the opera Reconstructie by a collective of Louis Andriessen, Hugo Claus, Reinbert de Leeuw, Micha Mengelberg, Harry Mulisch, Peter Schat and Jan van Vlijmen, along with Peter Schats Houdini, a circus opera.
In my modest opinion, Reconstructie is an underestimated conceptual opera (more about this work you can find on 401NederlandseOperas.nl), although... it took me 25 years to come to the point where I could appreciate it:
Schat's scènisc spectacle Houdini, a circus opera was an audiovisual spectacle that didn't transmit very well to the audio-only LP presentation. However, thanks to this video snipped that has been preserved in the archives of the Dutch Theater Instituut, we know now that those present at the world première in the pist of Royal Theatre Carré were witnessed a highly original opera creation:
Not until 1986 Reconstructie and Houdini, a circus opera found company in the 2 bucks baskets of my favorite record antiquarit 'Concerto'. The occasion was the opening of the Stopera, known today as Het Muziektheater, which was inaugurated with the world premeire of Otto Ketting's opera Ithaka. The festiva occasionwas augmented with the release of the live recording on LP!
I remember my disappointment when I realised that this beautiful (well, I liked it...) new theatre was baptised with an English language piece. To speak with a pop singer of those days, that was definitely a sign of the time. I did buy the recording though, still a treasured vinyl rarity, since it was never rereleased on cd. Listen below to the opera's prologue in the bar, where Angel (Charlotte Margiono) comes in like a great, black bird:
Although it didn’t take me very long to assemble the majority of titles that Riemens mentioned in his Great Opera Book, it proved impossible to find complete recordings of all titles. For starters there are those two accursed operas by Flemish composer Jan Blockx, The Princess of the inn and The sea bride.
Litho: Jan Blockx (portrait)
I could hardly believe that there were really no recordings of Blockx's operas. After all, Reconstructie, Houdini and Ithaka never made it into any later edition of Riemens' Great Opera Book, whereas The Princess of the inn and The sea bride. kept making entries in reprints until well in the 1990's.
Although complete recordings never surfaced, some light on Blockx's operas was shed when, in 2006, two cylinder recordings surfaced, containing an aria each of his two missing operas he Princess of the inn and The sea bride. They were released in the beautifully documented 2cd set Opera.be ‘The collection of Yves Becko’. My greatest interest was aimed at the fragment of The sea bride, 'Het waren twee Koningskinderen (They were two Royal children)', sung by baritone Laurent Swolfs. Contrary to the French-sung fragment of Princesse d’auberge (Princess of the inn), the aria from The sea bride was sung in beautiful Dutch (Pathé 50046-9459/CD opera.be © Collection Yves Becko):
The next discovery I made myself in 2010, when I visited a Flemish collector who had a then considered lost copy of the second act of The Princess of the inn!
Now that was a real opera! It was folkish and had melody, just as the works of, say, Mascagni or Eugène d’Albert, but then composed in Dutch, well, alright... Flemish:
Libretto of Paul Gilson's opera Prinsess Sunshine.
During my search for recordings of The Princess of the inn and The sea bride, I found numerous other treasures, such as operas by Paul Gilson, August de Boeck and Guillaume Landré. Bright, sparkling musical works! I was most particularly captivated by Gilson's 1904 opera Princess Sunshine. That Wagnerian style opera made me curious after what else had been composed in that era in Flanders and The Netherlands. Here a short snippet op the opening scene of Princess Sunshine thats erves to illustrate my point with respect to the Klimtian splendor of Gilson's orchestral writing:
I would have loved to write that we now present you with the ulttimate overview of Dutch opera in sound and vision, but unfortunately, that is not the case. The esteemed Louis Peter Grijp has ublished a comprehensive survey of the history of Dutch classical music which contained a cd set for which alone he should be knighted, but... as usual opera played but a minor part in it. This intrigued me to the point where I decided to look for sources that could answer all the questions that I now had with respect to the history of Ducth operas.
In exactly the same way as before with my research into the life and times of Franco Corelli and Hariclea Darclée, I became intrigued by every new find. For starters, there proved to have been more than 400 Dutch operas composed by hundreds of composers! Next I fuond support from people like MCO librarian Jan Jaap Kassies and marketing director Bas ten Have, as well as from archives such as the Dutch Musical Institute (NMI), The Music Centre of the Broadcasting Corporations (MCO), and the Musical Centre of The Netherland.
Thus, a fundament emerged of a detailed, but accissible survey of 335 years of Dutch Operas, which will be completed int two years from now.
In a duet with sister website 401dutchdivas.nl, the website 401nederlandseoperas.nl will report of the progress in the emergence of the book. At the same time it will inventorize the actual proceedings in Dutch Vocal Art by means of an agenda with upcoming premieres, and descriptions of operas and composers, which will be enlivened with photographs, audio and video samples.
Composers/Opera's van de maand
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