Symposium Flemish Opera

From Emperor Charles to Herbergprinses:
Flemish musical theatre in Flanders and abroad
November 26, 2015, Flemish Opera Gent

SympZangersThe highlight of the symposium ‘Flemish musical theatre in Flanders and abroad’ was the unique concert with arias and duets from forgotten Flemish operas. Programmed were arias and duets from Armand Limnander de Nieuwenhove’s Le maître-chanteur ou Maximillien à Francfort, François-Auguste Gevaert’s Quentin Durward (1858), Emile Wambach’s Quinten Massijs (1899) and Jan Blockx’ hit-operas De herbergprinses (Princess of the Inn, 1896) and De bruid der zee (The Bride of the Sea, 1901). Of the first two operas not a single note was available in sound until our 401DutchOperas recording of this concert. Pianist Joshi Hermans accompanied baritone Joris Grouwels and soprano Pauline Lebbe. Biographies of the composers and plots of the opera along with audio and video samples can be found following the hyperlinks above.

Tekst & photos: René Seghers

The symposium shed light on the problems revolving around both Flemish and Dutch opera, since there are significant parallels to be seen in the reasons why both national opera movements are obscure and forgotten. Flanders held out much longer though, with their best works keeping repertoire until the late 1970s, until the Royal Flemish Opera Antwerp was dissolved in 1982. In that year a Flemish radio broadcast of Paul Gilson’s Prinses Zonneschijn (Princess Sunshine) proved the last stand. Ever since both Flanders and The Netherlands have a troubled report when it comes to their national composers. Whereas the Wallonians have Grétry and César Franck, the Flemish settled for Peter Benoit as their most prominent composer. Around the fin de siècle verism of Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Puccini there were a number of competitors to Benoit though, most notably Jan Blockx, who was an international celebrity as an opera composer. His 1896 opera De herbergprinses even made it to successful performances at Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera in New York, 1909. A point of pain to the Flemish was that these foreign performances were usually given in the French translation, an argument that can’t be explained to anyone outside Flanders; at the time even the most exotic operas were usually given in the local language or a common operatic language. Hence, today we still speak of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame and Glinka’s La vie pour le Tzar.

The mere fact that in Antwerp or elsewhere in Belgium De herbergprinses was performed almost annually until the Royal Flemish Opera (KVO) was dissolved, proves that it is a piece of merit and interest. On the other hand the collapse of the KVO had its reasons, just as with the dissolution of the outdated Dutch Opera Foundation in 1964. Organisations need to reinvent themselves over time in order to keep themselves relevant, and the operas of Blockx, Gilson, Gevaert, Wambach, Miry or Benoit most likely aren’t guaranteed blockbusters today. The heated debate between panel and audience made it clear however, that there is a genuine craving for incidental revivals of the most cherished Flemish operas.

I do not wish to dwell too much into the policy of Flemish and Dutch opera houses, although Flanders and Wallonia have a much better position than the Dutch, who didn’t even have a National Opera House until 1987. What Flanders does share with the Dutch however, is an odd disdain for its own composers and singers. Our painters are big, and our musicians (post the days of the Flemish polyphones) are small. Apart from the Flemish comprimarios in Liège and the Belgian choirs, one might as well close the vocal departments of the conservatories in Belgium. That is the sad outcome of the battle fought since 1841 by populist, playwright and librettist Hippoliet Van Peene: Flemish culture with plays and opera in Dutch language. Van Peene had resounding success ever since his collaboration with Karel Miry, which resulted in unequivocal masterpieces such as Charles Quint and Bouchard d’Avesnes. At one point, Luc Joosten of the Flemish Opera Ghent made it clear from the panel that works such as De herbergprinses exceeded the knowledge and means of the theatre in Ghent. All the more remarkable then, that the very modest Lyrica Gent ensemble with minimal financial means previously succeeded to produce excellent concert performances of Miry’s Charles Quint and Bouchard d’Avesnes, which roused the audience into a frenzy (in French, but soit, better that than nothing ☺).

The liberation of the Flemish language by Van Peene, the libretto of Princess Sunshine and the success of Princess of the Inn

  • SympCeulemans
  • SympFerket
  • SympDeWilde
  • Lecture Adelheid Ceulemans
  • Lecture Johanna Ferket
  • Lecture Jan Dewilde

The symposium also shed light on the evolution of Flemish opera in the 19th Century by means of a look into three central works: Keizer Karel en de Berchemsche boer (Emperor Charles and the Farmer of Berchem, 1841) was the subject of a lecture by Adelheid Ceulemans. She linked this piece of music theatre with the ‘renaissance’ of Flemish theatre in the 19th Century. Johanna Ferket analyzed the nature-symbolism and the fairy tale elements in the libretto of Paul Gilson’s Prinses Zonneschijn (Antwerpen, 1894). The international success of Jan Blockx’ De herbergprinses (Antwerpen, 1896) was the subject of the lecture by Jan Dewilde.

The lectures of Dewilde en Ferket foremost revealed how sad it is that there are no good integral recordings of any of these works. Sad, since libretti aren’t isolated literary works, but just an argument for a composition. These snippets of known surviving fragments of these works made one hungry for more, which was of course precisely what Dewilde and Ferket aimed for: to rouse interest.

Adelheid Ceulemans’ lecture had a broader context. She sketched the turbulent Flemish operatic history between Van Peene’s popular musical play Keizer Karel en de Berchemsche boer (1841) and the opening of the Royal Flemish Opera House Antwerp in1907 (with a revival of Jan Blockx’ Herbergprinses). In these 70 years both musical theatre in Flanders and the way Flemish language was looked upon changed immensely. Dutch language musical plays were introduced in the 18th Century, under influence of the enlightenment movement, and ever since they developed. Ceulemans lamented that these Dutch language musical plays are often regarded with literary disdain, as being of no value. This however seems rather logic, given that the musical context of these plays and libretti has disappeared. In contemporary society one doesn’t easily get emotional over the Santa Claus-like rhymes of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde or the effective hodge-podge libretti of Eugène Scribe, without the music. Only after these texts have passed through the inspiration of a gifted composer can the work move us; a recipe can only be tasted after it has been prepared.


SympPanelFollowing the lectures Jan Dewilde, Luc Famaey, Luc Joosten and Stijn Saveniers debated on the question: does it make sense to program and study Flemish operas today? This turned into a verbal battle of sorts between Luc Joosten of the Flemish Opera Ghent on one side, and the other panel members and the audience on the other side, who fiercely attacked the ‘anti-Flemish’ policy of the Ghent Opera House. Admittedly, as Joosten argued, he is not personally responsible for this, but his defending of that policy made him a ‘live’ target for the audience and ‘Mr. Phaedra’, Luc Famaey. When Joosten argued that a Herbergprinses couldn’t possibly be cast today for lack of capable local singers, the audience burst into laughter. The undersigned gallantly offered Joosten his help, promising him to have a top cast of Flemish and Dutch singers within mere hours if needed. Well… Eva Maria Westbroek will impress as Rita, Frank van Aken or Arnold Bezuyen can certainly handle Merlijn, Cora Burggraaf or a promising young singer such as Maria Fiselier would make a fine Reinilde. Regarding De bruid der zee, we are certain that Eva Maria Westbroek will be a splendid Djovita in the dramatic soprano range (it can also be a mezzo, say, Burggraaf), Jolien De Gendt an enchanting Kerlien (if they want ‘a name’ per see, it can also be Lenneke Ruiten…), Denzil Delaere a divine Arrie and Henk Neven a great Free Kerdee. And should the vocal coaches of the Ghent Opera House really have no clue regarding how to sing these works, there were many older volunteers among the audience who could give them some after-school lessons based on the live performances they had attended in the 1960s and 70s (not to mention that a number of the later performers are still available to pass on their knowledge). We can also simply refer them to Eugen d’Albert, who seems to have taken his musical inspiration for Tiefland (1906) from De herbergprinses, which suffices to demonstrate the stature of Jan Blockx in 1896.

Having said that, I must praise the Flemish Opera Ghent for contributing (also in terms of providing the space) to this informative (and well attended!) day, which neatly revealed the pain points revolving around Flanders current operatic heritage. Flemish opera heritage is clearly at odds with the internationally oriented managements of Flanders opera houses, where the provincial staffs are openly ogling the Metropolitan Opera New York when it comes to reference points. Then, there is the Ghent Opera’s artistic director Dmitri Jurowski… a marvellous conductor, but would he even be able to pronounce it, Prinses Zonneschijn, Herbergprinses, Bruid der zee… Fortunately we speak Russian at 401DutchOperas, so, Mr. Jurowski, should you read this, then I invite you kindly to take a look into the mesmerizing Flemish operas Принцесса Cолнечный свет, Невеста моря and Принцесса таверны. You will make a difference with them in Flanders, and perhaps even abroad in a coproduction with an opera house in, say, Paris, Montpellier, or, why not, Moscow, St.–Petersburg or Novosibirsk (which has a wonderful stage!).

We hope that Mr. Joosten will see the audience’s heated response as a friendly invitation to seriously look into the score of De herbergprinses, which is already on his desk. Any evaluation of its track record and musical merits can have but one outcome. Admittedly, since the 1970s the cliché wants us to believe that Blockx and other Flemish and Dutch composers of the fin de siècle era were no groundbreaking avant-gardists like Schönberg, Berg or Stravinsky would soon come to be. It has always struck me as funny that those 1970s composers and critics who embraced Schönberg and Stravinsky were decidedly more anachronistic than Flemish verist Blockx was in 1896, but again, soit… Those who still uphold this cliché today might want to compare Blockx' De herbergprinses from 1896 or his De bruid der zee from 1901 with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly from 1904 or ‘O mio babino caro’ from Gianni Schicchi, 1919. As a Flemish verist in 1896, Blockx composed on the cutting edge of his time frame. More on him can be found in our extensive Blockx portait.

Oeuvrecatalogus van Peter Benoit, Canon Vlaamse Muziek

After the debate, Hannah Aelvoet presented the online oeuvrecatalogue of Peter Benoit and Jan Dewilde launched the first Canon of Flemish music (1600-2000).