Opera Theatre of the World Review - A Co-Production of the Holland Festival and the Dutch National Opera

Charlotte Houberg, Sophie Fetokaki, Ingeborg Bröcheler (Three witches), Martijn Cornet (He), Steven Van Watermeulen (Janssonius), Nora Fischer (She), Leigh Melrose (Athanasius Kircher) en Marcel Beekman (Pope Innozenzo XI)


The opera Theatre of the World is a co-production of the Holland Festival and the Dutch National Opera. It is an opera composed by Louis Andriessen, conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, performed by the ensemble Asko|Schönberg. The libretto is by Helmut Krausser.


Stage play is designed by Pierre Audi, the director of the Dutch National Opera (DNO). The decor is created by the Quay Brothers, American twins, who are video artists. Florence von Gerkan is responsible for the costumes.


Marcel Beekman (Pope Innozenzo XI), Leigh Melrose (Athanasius Kircher), Steven Van Watermeulen (Janssonius), Lindsay Kesselman (boy) en in het frame Cristina Zavalloni (Sor Juana Ínes de la Cruz)


The libretto is written by Helmut Krausser and based on a book by the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) was born on the edge of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. He regarded himself one of the last Renaissance men - a man who knows it all. Kircher claimed that he knew everything of the world. Whether he believed this himself or not is not clear.  He regarded himself as a great scientist.  His overwhelming knowledge should become clear in his scientific book ‘Toonneel van China’. The writing and the printing of the rich illustrated book was sponsored by the Pope Innozenzo XI in Rome and published in Amsterdam by the publisher Jansonius. The book contained ‘knowledge’ about China, Egypt and Babel. However all this ‘knowledge’ was invented by Kircher, who never visited these areas, although the author claimed that he had been there and studied these subjects. This book was owned by the father of the composer and young Louis Andriessen was fascinated by the phantasy of the book. The book inspired him and seventy years later this became the inspiration for his opera.  Andriessen invited Krausser to write the libretto in co-operation based on the book of Kircher. The writer Helmut Krausser is an author who also writes made-up and phantasy stories assuming these are true.


The story as shown in the opera starts when the writer Athanasius Kircher, who died in a river on flight from protestant prosecution, steps out of his grave into his life again. The story is told by an actor. Athanasius Kircher meets a young man (performed by a woman) who wants to know everything. Then Athanasius Kircher meet his benefactor the Pope. Now several uneasy sado-masochistic, homosexual scenes appear between the obviously crazy Pope and the high ranked crazy Jesuit Kircher. The scenes include a lot of rolling, raping, climbing, sweating, changing clothes and masks, and running on stage. During the play the curious young man develops into a devil (the theme of Faustus 1540) and interferes in the scenes. Meanwhile the actors are supposed to be in China, Babel, indicated with a tower, and in Egypt. The grotesque story ends with the death of Kircher.




Lindsay Kesselman (boy) en Leigh Melrose (Athanasius Kircher)


The opera is mainly performed by five figures, three singers and one actor in a double role, who are almost always on stage. The singers are: a young man, Athanasius Kircher himself as an older man, and the Pope Innozenzo XI. The actor is the publisher Jansonius. The actor has also another role a role as Raffaele Fabretti, although the changing role is not really clear for the audience. The actor is not a singer.

Adjusting figures are three witches, seducing Kircher. Later also seen in the background in a sailing boat.

Another occasionally figure is 17th century lady Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695).  She is shown in a picture high up in the background of the stage. Andriessen wanted to include a woman’s voice, and selected the woman who wrote for many years letters to Kircher as a figure.

There is an intermezzo with a young man and woman in love singing a romantic love song near the graveyard, actually without any relation with the story.


The artists speak different languages. This does not matter so much because there  is hardly any real verbal communication. The mixed languages, used by the singers, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, German and English, do not add anything substantial to the performance, only maybe, to indicate the story of the disrupted languages in the tower of Babel.


All the roles are well performed with clear voices reinforced by microphones. Playing these roles is certainly not easy with climbing, rolling and running on stage while singing. The performance by all artists is nevertheless excellent, especially by the leading role of Leigh Melrose in the role of Kircher.


The music was recently written by Louis Andriessen, who uses a kind of eclectic approach. Modern new music with an emphasis on sounds, combined with folk music and Jazz moments. The music is nice, but not spectacular. Modern, but not challenging. It lacks emotion and moving of the heart.



Charlotte Houberg, Sophie Fetokaki, Ingeborg Bröcheler (Three witches) en Leigh Melrose (Athanasius Kircher)


The ensemble Asko|Schönberg is an experienced performer of the work of Louis Andriessen. The ensemble rehearsed four months. The music is well performed.



The ensemble Asko|Schönberg is conducted by the Dutch Reinbert de Leeuw (1938), who is connected with the ensemble and a long time interpreter of the work of Louis Andriessen. Louis Andriessen prefers to have his opera conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, because of the special sounds in the opera, with  which De Leeuw is familiar.



Marcel Beekman (Pope Innozenzo XI) en Leigh Melrose (Athanasius Kircher)




The opera Theatre of the World is a new opera of Louis Andriessen (1939), a Dutch music composer of modern music. Louis Andriessen has written many modern pieces of music, however, until now only a few operas. The Theatre of the World is the fifth opera of Louis Andriessen. Louis Andriessen comes from a family of many musicians.


The decor and video:

The decor and 3D-videos in the background of the stage, are designed during two years by the twin Quay Brothers, the American video artists. The decor is done in grey and white, showing a tower, a grave, and holes in the ground, many objects and obstacles. The stage is built in the Theater Carré in Amsterdam into the large theater surrounded by the public. At the back side of the stage 3D-videos are shown on a huge screen, with all kind of vague figures and patterns. However there is no clear relation between the 3D-videos and the scenes on stage and the story of the opera.


The costumes:

The costumes are simple black and white, accept for the nice yellow coat of the Pope. The bathing customs of the witches are nicely done and looked like coming out of the painting of Hironimus Bosch. The changing masks are nicely made.



Marcel Beekman (Pope Innozenzo XI), Leigh Melrose (Athanasius Kircher) en Lindsay Kesselman (boy)


My point of view:

Let me start with compliments for the orchestra, the conductor and the artists. Together they did a wonderful job based on many years of hard work, not so much regarding this opera but in training themselves to be able to perform this piece of work. The music is nicely written, but not great. It is not the best work of Louis Andriessen. The music is modern, but not challenging, too flat.


The stage setting of Pierre Audi is not my taste. The unnecessary fighting, running, rolling, climbing and changing clothes and masks is not leading to something extra. It is a rather chaotic spectacle without  adding much  to the story, the music or the pleasure of the audience.

The story does not help much either. Like the book, it is a rather strange story with people in and out the grave, without much emotion.

One figure however is more interesting, that is the figure of the Pope which was excellently performed by Marcel Beekman.


The story emphasizes a rather uneasy relation between the crazy pope and the crazy Jesuit, the writer Kircher. The story is situated in the beginning of the 17th century. However, it is a missing chance to create a now acceptable parallel between the phantasy book of Kircher, the phantasy book bible and the institute based that phantasy, the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church and all it members are an equal phantasy story. To emphasize this would made a far more interested story.


The Dutch premiere in Theater Carré in Amsterdam, is preceded by world premiere in Los Angeles in May 2016 by the Philharmonic orchestra of L.A. The world premiere was received enthusiastic by the American press. The difference of L.A. with Amsterdam is that in Amsterdam the decor and the 3D-videos presentations are added to the opera. In Los Angeles there was no room for such large decor and video screen. In Los Angeles the opera is performed like a concert.


The opera Theatre of the World is the last production of the jubilee season, the 50th season, of the Dutch National Opera. The opera Theatre of the World is very positively reviewed by Floris Don (NRC, 06-13-2016) a daily quality newspaper in The Netherlands.


Steven Van Watermeulen (Janssonius), Lindsay Kesselman (boy) en Leigh Melrose (Athanasius Kircher)



Team, and Cast


Louis Andriessen


Helmut Krausser


Reinbert de Leeuw

stage play 

Pierre Audi

decor and video

Quay Brothers


Florence von Gerkan


Jean Kalman


Klaus Bertisch





Leigh Melrose, Athanasius Kircher,
Lindsay Kesselman, a boy,
Marcel Beekman, Pope Innozenzo XI,
Cristina Zavalloni, Sor Juana Ínes de la Cruz,
Mattijs van de Woerd, the cornifex,
Nora Fischer, Martijn Cornet, a couple of secret lovers (He and She)

with support of the Ammodo foundation

Co-production of the Dutch National Opera and Holland Festival.

Performed June 11 2016 in Theatre Carré Amsterdam

Duration 1.5 hours

Language: Dutch, German, English, Spanish and Italian.


Photos by Ruth Walz



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