1816 - das Jahre ohne Sommer


This was my second collaboration with Theater Kontra-Punkt (the first was Du Bist Da, Du BIst Fort) and was a commission from the Düsseldorf Schumannfest, premiered in May 2016.

In 1815, an Indonesian volcano called Tambora exploded, shooting several billion tons of dust into the stratosphere: it was a calamity many times the size of the Mount St Helens explosion in the 1980s. The fallout blew north, blotting out the sun and in 1816 there was no Summer in Europe. The immediate consequence was a refugee crisis whose scale wasn't equalled until 1945; some people think half a million starved to death. There were artistic consequences too. The darkling sky and August snows were the trigger for the famous Geneva writing contest that produced Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Polidori's The Vampyr and Byron's epic gloom-fest The Darkness; this last text ran through the show as a ritornello.

It was disturbing to read objections to the refugees made in the 19th century that were indistinguishable from the things being said about victims of the Syrian conflict today and the piece was uncompromisingly political. Like all the best theatre, 1816 held up a distant mirror to our own time. We ended up with a curious hybrid of a work, part opera, part standup comedy, part oratorio. There was a large chorus, three actors and a band. With some misgivings I joined the band and acted in the piece, dressed in a silver space suit and a top hat (don't ask me why). I discovered that the combination of viola, clarinet and a tiny Victorian "peashooter" trombone is a marriage made in Heaven and at some point I shall certainly write something substantial for the group. One number, a setting of part of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage has inspired me to write a choral song cycle with solo viola. A very influential musical experience, then, but I do not think my dress sense will be changing in response to my costume.

It was staged in the enchantingly named Bui-Bui Bilk, a big industrial space which we filled with steam and lit just enough for the piece to be visible. There was no stage: performers and audience moved constantly around the building. My sense of direction borders on a form of spatial autism and remembering where to go next occasioned me far more stress than writing the hour or so of music that the piece required!

Production Photos


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