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Reinbert de Leeuw: Reconstructie

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  • Schat, Vlijmen, Mengelberg, De Leeuw, Andriessen
  • Reconstructie, Holland Festival 1969
Composers: Louis Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw, Misja Mengelberg, Peter Schat, Jan van Vlijmen.
Libretto: Hugo Claus, Harry Mulisch
Commisioned by: De Nederlandse Operastichting
Seizoen: 1968/69 

Cast: Pieter van den Berg (Quetzalcoatl/Commander),Claudine Arnaud (Bolivia), Bert Olsson (Don Juan), Yoka Berrety (Claudelle), Ramses Shaffy  (Bill), Natascha Emmanuels (Cuba), Musicians of various Dutch Orchestras

Actors: Henk Molenberg (Erasmus), Peter van de Wouw (Tarzan), Alex van Royen (Martin Bormann), Jérôme Reehuis (ABC), Paul Brandenburg (Clarence), Siem Vroom (Clyde), Hetty Verhoogt (Cinderella), Carola Gijsbers van Wijk (Chouchou) en Natascha Emmanuels (Cuba). 

Stage director (Hugo Claus, Harry Mulisch), costumes (Frank Raven), Stage design (Carel Weeber), Light director (Wim van den Berg, Bob Kuijper) 

Reconstructie: documentary on the opera. Interview with Marga Klompé. Dutch language only. Contains comments of Juliana, Queen of the Netherlands. Looking startled, she bravely maintained that ‘certain moments were very interesting.’ Any more profound evaluation she ‘gladly left to the specialists in the field’. (Dutch language only; Embedded from TIN, Theater Instituut.) 

‘On 6 July 1968 seven visitors arrived at the Sion Monastery in Diepenveen, in the south-east of the Netherlands. The group comprised Harry Mulisch, one of the country's foremost writers, Hugo Claus, an established playwright from Belgium, and five young composers. They brought with them a cammission from Maurice Huisman, intendant of the Nederlandse Operas tichting, for a music theatre piece addressing 'the evolucion of and the revolution in human relations'. Over the next seven days, in an utterly unmonastic spirit of creative euphoria fuelled by smuggled alcohol, the group assembled the basic outlines of Reconstructie ('Reconstruction'), which was to become the undoubted ‘cause célèbre’ of the 1969 Holland Festival. The production combined the talents not only of its five composers – Louis Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw, Misha Mengelberg, Peter Schat and Jan van Vlijmen,  - but also of the recorder player Frans Brüggen, the jazz musicians Willem Breuker and Han Benrunk, and, amongst the vocal soloists, the well-known Dutch pop singers Yoka Beretty and Ramses Shaffy.’ 

'A sort of guerrilla: Che at the opera’
Robert Adlington, Cambridge University Press, 2007 

‘It was the final chord of the 1960’s’.

Reconstructie librettist Harry Mulisch


Illustrations: Holland Festival, Theater Instituut TIN Amsterdam, 401DutchDivas archive

Interview: Reinbert de Leeuw interviewed by 401DutchOperas (this interview dates back to 2011, and prompted the writing of this essay, which was finished in August 2013.)

Video: Theater Instituut TIN

Audio samples: LP STEIM Opus 001 

Reconstructie is one of the most controversial works ever composed in The Netherlands. One might label it as much an opera as an anti-opera. In the end it was certainly also a political statement, and a revolutionary opus that aimed to restore Che Guevara’s biography to the level of the anti capitalist freedom fighter, rather than a fashionable poster icon that capitalist commerce had reduced him to. Reinbert de Leeuw, together with Andriessen the only composer of the five who can still testify to the work’s origins today, remembers the work on their operatic Opus 1: 

‘In order to compose the work, we retreated for a while to a Monastery in Diepenveen. The work went through each’s hands; we all looked into each other’s creations, altering them before giving it to the next. It was very intense and productive, although this process was not equally suited to each composer involved, but we tried. Reconstructie was perhaps foremost an attempt to say farewell to individualism. Not the ego but the creativity of the greater body, the group, was the central theme. We were inspired, unified also by the generation conflict and social awareness of the central themes of the 1960s. Vietnam unified friend and foe against American imperialism. Reconstructie was news, it made The New York Times as a musical manifest of things that were then very much in the air.’ 

Up to that point all makes sense, which cannot be said of the origins of the composition, which was commissioned by The Netherlands Opera Foundation. Admittedly, the Holland Festival for which Reconstructie was intended, had a history of progressive programming since the late 1950’s, but long before the world premiere the entire venture seemed in jeopardy, remembers Reinbert de Leeuw:

‘Conservative newspapers as De Telegraaf waged war on us by the likes of Henk van der Meijden. The Holland Festival and the Dutch Opera Association had commissioned us, but when they saw the result, they weren’t all too happy. Already during the preparations there were protests against the squandering of cultural subventions, but that only strengthened us. This anti-movement created enough interest to prevent them from eliminating us from the program.’ 

Castro’s Cuba 

The reason for the controversy was of course the interpretation given to the assignment, principally by the librettists. At the time of receiving the commission, Mulisch and Claus both came back from attending the Cultural Congress in Havana, where Fidel Castro himself provided the closing speech. The Congress was larded with European cultural invitees, dubbed ‘intellectual workers.’ Castro ranted there against ‘Yankee imperialism’, and, writes Adlington in ‘Che at the opera’: 

‘he noted the emergence of ‘guerille units amongst intellectual workers; that is to say, the intellectual workers are adopting an increasingly combative stand’. 

Still according to Adlington, this visit was decisive for the emergence of the idea to make Che’s revolution the central point of the commissioned opera. They were intoxicated by the natural beauty of Cuba, and: 

‘… convinced of the success of the people’s revolution. It was clear that Latin America should provide the setting for the new work, and Guevara, who had died at the hands of US-trained Bolivian troops only four months previously, the central subject. Not all of Schat's colleagues shared his in terest in extending their activism beyond the sphere of cultural politics. Mengelberg and Van Vlijmen initially rejected the Guevara theme; Andriessen and De Leeuw were more amenable to the idea, but at this stage had no personal investment in Marxist ideology. These differences in political outlook were quickly diffused, however, by the appeal of the working principle agreed during the week in the Diepenveen monastery: that of an 'artistic guerrilla group'. This responded both to Castro's perception that 'more and more, analysis and concepts must be the work of teams of men rather than of individual men', and to the example set closer to home by the Provos, who, like many under und activists of the time, adopted the 'guerrilla' tag for themselves. In Mulisch 's words, 'our revolutionary way of working would reflect our revolutionary subject.’ 

With respect to the assembly of the collaborators on Reconstruction, it should be pointed out that the five composers were friends since the late fifties, when they had all been composition students of Kees van Baaren at the Hague Conservatory. Schat continued his studies with Pierre Boulez, and Andriessen with Luciano Berio. Together with Van Vlijmen they became leading exponents of serialism in the Netherlands. Although serialism seemed the opposite of musical Dadaism and Fluxus as represented by John Cage’s 1962 creation of the Mood Engineering Society, Schat, Andriessen and Mengelberg played a leading role in this movement. Clearly, the will to bridge gaps between styles and the freedom of choice prevailed within them over the limitations provided by the various doctrines that had dominated classical music for ages. By 1967, emerging jazz pianist Mengelberg co-founded the Instant Composers Pool, dedicated to creative improvisation. In addition, Reinbert de Leeuw explored new performing techniques and novel forms of notation. He also published, and his writings as well as his piano recitals prompted interest in Charles Ives and Erik Satie. 

By 1966, each of the five composers had also experimented in various ways with polystylism, and this unique constellation of simultaneous interests paired with complementary skills and interests made them ready for the challenge of writing a group opera. 

From Don Giovanni tot Tarzan 

The team decided to focus upon the imperialist point, rather than to produce a tearjerker that focused on the victims of imperialism. Perhaps far too ambitious in its many analogies and its complex patchwork of multi-layered symbolism, the plot is also rather ‘direct;’ at surface level, things are very transparent. The idea was to ‘reconstruct’ Che Guevara’s death in two interlinked ways, say, in two parallel allegories. In the first plot line some American businessmen tour Latin America with their families, to check their investments and look for new opportunities. They are obstructed by an unnamed guerillero, who is subsequently ordered dead. The second plot line is the more allegoric and complex, enacting the Don Giovanni legend as presented by Mozart’s opera. Adlington labels him ‘the prototype of the imperialist raping girls named Bolivia, and then continuing to finish off their fathers, the ‘commander.’ The allegory lives by the names of Don Juan’s victims, who all bear names of Latin American countries, and eventually collaborate in bringing about the Don’s defeat. Within these two main driving plot lines, a number of characters from Western culture appear, among them Tarzan, Cinderella, and Clyde. Tarzan is the lost father of the head of the business delegation, which refers to capitalism as obeying only to the law of the jungle. The assistant of the CEO of the businessmen is Martin Bormann, then a Nazi figure suspected to have found asylum in Latin America. The role of Don Giovanni’s assistant Leporello fell upon reformist humanist philosopher Erasmus, whose 500th birthday was celebrated in 1969. The killing of the guerillero (Che Guevara) even prompts the manifestation of the ancient Maya God Quetzalcoatl, which gives Che’s death a mythical aureole. The plot is organized along the 26 letters of the alphabet, each of which forms a scene. The opera has two parts, and from the star a group of workers is seen erecting the statue of the ‘commander’ (Che). At the end of the opera this statue is erect, and as in Mozart’s opera, this Stone Guest invites Don Juan to the table. 

The world premiere 

This video, embedded from YouTube, samples a few minutes of music from Reconstructie, which is tailored to an array of photographs from the production. The sheer amount of photographs that surfaced from Reconstructie serves to show how lavish publicity for this production was. For a more structured sampling of the music we refer you to our full Reconstructie Synopsis Page here

The work was ultimately premiered at the Holland Festival on June 29, in 1969, ‘The Year of Endeavour.’ The location was Royal Theatre Carré. Librettists Hugo Claus and Harry Mulisch signed for the stage direction of a remakable joint – read communist – opera by no less than five composers: Louis Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw, Misha Mengelberg, Peter Schat and Jan van Vlijmen.  First performers were Pieter van den Berg (Quetzalcoatl/Commander), Claudine Arnaud (Bolivia), Bert Olsson (Don Juan), Yoka Berrety (Claudelle), Ramses Shaffy  (Bill) en Natascha Emmanuels (Cuba). Shaffy and Berrety were genuine Dutch pop music icons of the time, which created a level of attention in itself. Strikingly, Shaffy was parodying himself as Claudelle’s ‘easy chanson style’ lover. 

reconst1The singers were complemented by a large cast of actors that brought such illustrious names to the stage as Erasmus, Tarzan, Martin Bormann, ABC, Clyde, and Cinderella. These had an intrinsic function in the play, and served to spice up the action according to the rich history of the Royal Carré Theatre, which was originally erected as a circus (it still has the circus arena today, and is used as a circus for several weeks per year, most notably with Christmas). This called for varieté and an element of showbiz, for which the supplementary characters – Tarzan swaying on lianas, Cinderella in full swing, ecc – served as well as majorette choirs, a scene with made-up tv-commercials breaking the work, and, really, a 1000 things more. The orchestra was divided in four groups, each conducted by one of the composer, the fifth concerning himself with the electronic music production, all of which provided a spectacle in itself. 

A word on the music, librettists and composer 

  • Houdini
  • Axel
  • Aap-veslaat-de-knekelgeest
  • La-commedia
  • Malheureux-vetu-de-noit
  • Rosa
  • Writing-to-vermeer

Both traditionally oriented opera buffs and lovers of the typical avant-garde music should be warned that the multi-layered and quotation based technique of the composers makes the work shift between the realm of musical theatre, musical, and pop music or rock-opera, if one prefers that term. Once revolutionary and effective, a number of parts sound decidedly outdated today. The libretto doesn’t just border on the naive; it is a textbook example of the opera as a vehicle for political aims. Not only have Mulisch and Claus been proven wrong to the point where one can only wonder ho won earth two such famous writers, particularly Claus, ever settled for this plot. Admittedly, it is cleverly wrought, and the composing team must have felt the type of solidarity with Castro that I remember from night-outs in smoky clubs in Tilburg as La Cabana, or Cuba in Amsterdam. This is not to say that they weren’t ‘right’ in their observations, they were. The creative team successfully managed to create a riot in the musical establishment of The Netherlands, creating themselves some name and fame as avant-garde composers. There are also numerous interesting ideas to be found scattered around in Reconstructie. They failed however to create a unified opera. It remains a wild mixture of thoughts that merely clash upon each other. Today it appears very much as a typical period work of the late 1960s, with little more relevance than having launched the careers of Louis Andriessen, Peter Schat, Reinbert de Leeuw. Misja Mengelberg had his place in Dutch music during his life, but ended up completely forgotten. De Leeuw went on to write an other opera, this time together with van Vlijmen alone, Axel (1977). He wasn’t satisfied with the result and gave up composing in the early 1980s, because he felt his music couldn’t stand the test of time. Jan van Vlijmen later became director of the Dutch Opera after the Muziektheater was built in 1987, and went on to write another opera, on Van Gogh: Un malheureux vêtu de noir. In 1976, Schat produced another spectacular circus opera, titled Houdini–A circus opera.  By the late 1970’s, he turned against his original avant-garde principles and further wrote the opera’s Aap verslaat de Knekelgeest (Monkey subdues the White-bone Demon). Today he is more known in name than by means of his music, although his ingenious Tone Clock has a deserved place in Dutch musical history. That leaves Louis Andriessen, who went on to become a world famous composer, writing internationally performed operas as La Commedia, Rosa–a horse drama, and Writing to Vermeer. 

Reconstructie analysed 

Reconstructie employs various ingenious composition methods from tonal to atonal. The instrumentation included scoring for mobile soloists and a large number of keyboard instruments, electronic and otherwise, while avoiding traditional instruments and percussion. Various types of choral writing were employed and all five composers simultaneously acted as the conductors, one of them being an electronic music conductor. The composition of Reconstructie was a joint effort in which each composer reworked or altered the work of the others. According to the composers, each composer’s unique features were present in the final result. The deal between them was to base a considerable part of the music on Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The pitch organization was based on the two main motives from the Don Giovanni overture, which was processed in all sorts of way by means of a computer program. Dead composers weren’t literally quoted, but their styles were absorbed. 

The idea of taking up Mozart’s music and presenting it in a provocative avant-garde instrumentation and concept seems to originate here. This calls for comparison with such composers as P. D. Q. Bach’s parody The Abduction of Figaro, in which Don Giovanni and other themes from Mozart operas are they cornerstones of a highly personalized, but unpretentious ‘pasticcio’. More striking are the conceptual similarities with the 2007 Opera Spanga ‘de-composition’ of Don Giovanni into Donna Giovanna, by Floris van Bergeijk. The latter uses Mozart’s motives and melodies as the basis for a so called ‘deconstruction’, in which he recomposes the original in a way that comes close to orchestrating any given piano-vocal score after one’s own orchestral style. In contrast, Reconstructie rather evokes the work of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, the first ‘pop musicians’ to use complex classical techniques within a scoring of unorthodox instruments and a pop idiom. These similarities are only present at a meta level, since, apart from a few deliberate pop idiom quotations, the five Reconstructie composers use an avant-garde classical music idiom, which orientates itself on the Darmstadt school. In its complexity, though, Reconstructie is also a direct sequel to Peter Schat’s 1966 opera Labyrinth, another experimental opera that merits a closer look into it’s music and context. Although some ideas seem outdated today, especially where 1960’s pop music and musicals now no longer fashionable are quoted, it was all part of the plan to honor the history of Royal Theatre Carré as well, which called for the inclusion of a large amount of showbiz elements. Musically, this resulted in the inclusion of cabaret songs, pop music, waltzes, national anthems, hymns, Western film music and quotations from various operas. Regardless, the basic material is a ten-note sequence derived from two quotations from Mozart’s Don Giovanni overture. 

In its best moments, Reconstructie sounds like a mix of the styles of the five composers who were destined to become the leading Dutch composers of the 1970’s. Not surprisingly, the style of Peter Schat is perhaps most audible for he was then the most notorious figure in the quintet of composers. Yet, Reconstructie is not easily summarized or described. It was conceived as a polystylistic work that throws styles and epochs together in a whirlpool of action and thoughts. It summarizes the imperialist agenda in Latin America and presents itself as a manifest of the protest generation, while simultaneously paying tribute to Mozart and transporting him into the future of, say, electronic music. In many a moment Reconstructie is an ‘action piece.’ In those moments, typical of 1960’s art, it can sounds a little naive and outdated, but in numerous other moments it casts a shadow ahead of what was to be expected of the five angry young composers. 

Team effort 


As a team effort, Reconstructie evokes the baroque era, although consensus wasn’t always easy to reach. Initially, the revolutionary topic and then the scenic arrangement along the letters of the alphabet caused heated discussions within the team. Another controversial issue was the weight that had to be given to popular or familiar musical materials The ‘Z’ scene and the ending of the work were left open until the end. Even by April 1969, when the libretto went to the publisher, no solution had been found that all could agree with. Back from the Monastery with no solution for these issues, Schat started a ‘Z’ diary, which recorded all contrasting ideas. Eventually they settled for the simple crescendo in D. 

A place in time 

A-place-in-timeReconstructie is far from an ‘unequivocal masterpiece’, but it is certainly the most remarkable and original opera written in the Netherlands after Willem Pijper’s Halewijn (1934) en Jan van Gilse’s Thijl (1940, posthumous world premiere 1976). Thus, Reconstructie is indeed what co-composer Reinbert de Leeuw labeled ‘a document in which the spirit of the 1960’s protest generation was summarized in a grand finale.’ As such, it was the musical manifest of the Dutch Provo movement; the proceeds of the LP release were donated to the Committee of Solidarity with Cuba. Reinbert de Leeuw on the merits of Reconstructie: 

‘Reconstructie has a place in Dutch operatic history because of the moment when it was created. For one last time, the 1960’s were summarized and recreated in this exuberant creation. We were inspired, unified also by the generation conflict and social awareness of the central themes of the 1960s. Vietnam unified friend and foe against American imperialism. The late 1960’s were definitely the time for engagement, but it was also the provocative work of some ambitious young men. We tore down conventions; we let pop music mingle with classical music. In our minds that was the musical equivalent of what pop art had done with art history. We had no inhibitions and simply grabbed all we though we needed from the world around us. It was a time defined document, a statement, a manifest, and also… a tremendous success! In retrospect it is almost impossible to believe this, but people were fighting to get inside the theatre. The opera was news, and the premiere actually made it into The New York Times, as a musical manifest of things that were then very much in the air.’ 


‘Van der Meijden and bis co-writers focused initially on the way in which this publicly funded work attacked 'a land for which we have so much to thank' - the United States having played the leadlng role in the liberation and post-war recovery of the Netherlands. But a more general criticism was leveled at the perceived trend towards lavish governmental support for dubious and incomprehensible modern art.’ 

Henk van der Meijden in De Telegraaf, as summarized by Robert Adlington in 'A sort of guerrilla: Che at the opera,’ Cambridge University Press, 2007 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing in all is that a government that completely opposed the ideas financed the lavish production of Reconstructie. A cynical person would argue that average Dutch politicians never had a clue as to what they were financing, since budgeting was just a matter of channeling amounts of money to an arts board, that distributes the riches freely over the happy few. In an attempt to explain this ‘mystery’ to his Anglo Saxon readers, Adlington describes Dutch politics in incredible detail (even  suggesting that American secret services were then secretly financing left wing cultural events within Europe, in order to create some sort of controversy that served as a purpose for themselves at all). However, after De Telegraaf had launched it’s anti-Reconstructie campaign, it became an issue in the Dutch parliament. Parliament member Mr. Kronenburg asked Minister of Culture Klompé if fit was true that she financed an opera which sole purpose was to offend our American allies? Kronenburg demanded that she read out the entire plot to the parliament. Klompé refused and argued that it was not the task of the parliament to debate the contents of a work of art, even if the government subsidized that work of art. Louis Andriessen: ‘She knew that our opera was probably anti-American, but she argues that it was so nice to live in a country where this was possible.’ 

For non-Dutch readers, especially American ones or those coming form non-democratic countries this is probably hard to grasp, but it is really simple: Dutch right wing parties need coalition partners from the middle or the left to govern. When it comes to dividing Ministries, the Ministry of Culture is routinely the bone thrown at the left wing parties. Because of this, Dutch governments have financed an astonishing amount of controversial cultural activities throughout the decades, including Reconstructie. As we can see from the controversy in the press over Reconstructie, this caused heated public debates over money being squandered on a controversial, artistic elite. With the final outcome that there was a genuine run on tickets! 

Perhaps only a country like The Netherlands could produce a work as outrageously polystylistic as Reconstructie. In The Netherlands people in villas with swimming pools tell the public at large to use less water; when the wind blows green, oil companies use green as their communicative color; when the wind blows anti-America as it did in the 1960’s, the government expresses concern over what is going on in America, while assuring its ambassador that nothing changed except the letters in yesterday’s papers (Wiki leaks). For those who aren’t interested in all that, we have a kitsch remnant of flower fields, windmills, wooden shoes and folklore villages for tourists. The Dutch were always renowned for selling as many weapons as possible to all parties at the simultaneously. We do also have lots of cheese and cows, though. Should all these assets mean nothing to you, this probably means that you are ready for the plot and the music of Reconstructie, which can be found here