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Bethlehem Hospital: William Blake in Hell, Opera by Huib Emmer and Ken Hollings, performed by Theatre Group ‘Hollandia,’ under the supervision of Johan Simons and Lucas Vis. Psychiatric Centre ‘Vogelenzang’ Bennebroek. Performances through 25th of October.

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More or Less Disturbed Mental Life

Homemade opera is a tricky problem and this genre is usually looked upon skeptically. However, Huib Emmer has now made an opera—albeit to an English text—that stands the test of criticism magnificently. Music and text are complementary and well-balanced, and the performance is captivating all through. The libretto to Bethlehem Hospital, written by Ken Hollings, is based on a legend of the English poet and painter William Blake (1757-1827): he is supposed to have spent the last twenty years of his life in the London mental institution Bethlehem Hospital. The opera is produced in co-operation with the theatre group Hollandia and performed on location in the psychiatric ward at Vogelenzang. Unexpectedly, the room was not half filled with patients—after all, a nice break—they were given their own performance in camera.

Apart from the fact that Blake dies at the end of the opera, the narrative lacks a clear plot or dramatic development. How could it be different if all characters enjoy a more or less disturbed mental life? This is about associations and fantasy worlds. The company consists of disparate figures like the “surgeon” Dr. Tearguts, acted and sung brilliantly by Charles van Tassel; the famous pyromaniac Martin the Fireraiser, played by David Barron; and, of course, William Blake (Jeroen Willems) accompanied by his wife Catherine (Anne Haenen). She is the only normal person in the story, although that can be properly parenthesized in view of the masochistic manner in which she allows herself to be continuously rejected.

Everybody is agreed on one thing: Bethlehem Hospital is hell. The man who is condemned to death, and who fiercely stares at the audience throughout the entire performance, is the symbol of that. At the beginning of the second act he narrates how he has killed his mother in the hope of winning his father’s love. In vain. In short, this is the hell of suppression.

There is disagreement about the possibilities for liberation: the surgeon, Dr. Tearguts, believes in science and wants to cut up one of his fellow patients on the spot. There is also a clergyman who expects salvation from God and who gets all ecstatic at the idea of God sawing open all chests and finding empty hearts. Blake, on the other hand, believes in the power of the imagination and in following emotions and urges à-la-De Sade. That is how he is portrayed: he is not mad, but he has abandoned all convention and devotes himself to his fantasy.

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Huib Emmers has abandoned all convention, too: his music is a mixture of different styles and genres—rock, Stravinsky, a remote Verdi—but he adapts them so easily that it sounds attractive and good. Some instrumental progressions are loud and stiff, chords hammered on the pianos, whiplashes on the drums, and venomous motifs on the horns, and some vocal passages are brimming with warmth and lyricism. In general, the music is very bright, contrasting nicely with the lyrics which are often heavy and emotionally charged. The “energy” Blake talks about is in the music and creates space in the slightly suffocating atmosphere. Furthermore, the vocal parts—often accompanied in unison by one instrument (violin, cello, clarinet)—are brilliant.

The ad hoc ensemble, alternately directed by Ernst van Tiel and Lucas Vis, consists of excellent musicians, and all credit is due to the singers and actors, too. In short, a professional show. The location does not add much, however. Vogelenzang on a week night is nothing more than a desolate village, and all that remains are a few location-bound lighting effects. Nevertheless, it is worth the effort.

(Originally published in De Groene Amsterdammer.)

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