A mere clock tick before the new millennium, 1998 marked the 900th birthday of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century abbess, mystic, healer, writer, artist, and composer. During the last few years, the musical and literary works of this prolific medieval Renaissance woman have become extremely popular, and feminists and New Age spirituality seekers have set her up as an icon. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that modern-day artists would be eager to bring this remarkable woman's works to the stage.
What is surprising is that the two groups who performed Hildegard's morality play Ordo Virtutum at the Lincoln Center Festival this past summer would take the same text and ideas and present such completely disparate productions. Sequentia is a world-renowned, Germany-based vocal group dedicated to reconstructing medieval music and performing it as authentically as possible. Its Ordo was performed in a Romanesque-style stone church with stately staging and ethereal echoes. The Hildegurls, on the other hand, are a New York-based performance art group which first performed some of Hildegard's choral compositions a few years ago at CBGB's, the legendary New York rock club. Their Electronic Ordo Virtutum was performed in Lincoln Center's black-box Clark Studio Theatre with rock-and-roll sound and lighting.
Written around 1150, the Ordo Virtutum, or Order of the Virtues, is considered to be the earliest surviving example of opera. It is a parable of how the human soul, represented by the character of Anima, can be seduced away from following God by the temptations of earthly pleasures, but ultimately can only be satisfied by the eternal pleasures of a godly life. A parade of Virtues, including Humilitas (Humility), Scientia Dei (Knowledge of God), Fides (Faith), and Innocentia (Innocence) vanquish Diabolus (the Devil), and Anima is restored to a state of grace.
For acoustical and atmospheric reasons, Sequentia's Ordo was performed in a church close to Lincoln Center. Stage director Franz-Josef Heumannskamper orchestrated a ceremonious promenade of the Virtues through the chancel, reminiscent of ancient Greek theatre. His background is mainly in avant-garde musical theatre in Germany, which is why music director Barbara Thornton approached him to work with Sequentia several years ago on a production of the 15th-century Bordesholmer Marienklage. "She was looking for a director who was not into naturalistic, realistic theatre," Heumannskamper says. "If you go through this material with a normal theatre background, you cannot find what is in it." Because this piece would tour and be performed in churches, he decided against scenic decor and instead designed the staging to work with individual spaces. "I tried to find the power of the piece from the inside," he says, "and not to build things around it."
Heumannskamper called on fashion designer Thomas Venable, who had worked for Dior in Japan, to create costumes that would draw on both ancient and modern ideas. Venable researched materials on 12th- and 13th-century artifacts and read Hildegard's writings in which she describes how she sees the Ordo characters. Heumannskamper says that she fantasized about "birds on their heads and pictures of Jesus on the chest of one of them," but also that "she was dreaming and wrote about the beauty of all the queens around her, so I tried to find a way to make them very beautiful." Venable was able to take advantage of the medieval collections of the museums in Cologne (where Sequentia is based) for his research. Ultimately he combined medieval silhouettes with Japanese kimono ideas and other modern touches. "I like the idea of mixing things together and coming up with a look," he says. The Virtues wear voluminous white robes with apron-style underdresses that have a center panel of Trevira polyester in a color corresponding to which character they portray. (These colors are taken from Hildegard's descriptions.) The over-robes are made of four layers of cotton voile, totaling about 25 yards per dress. Their hats, shaped like bishop's miters or pointed gothic arches, are made of royal blue Trevira over an industrial felt form, fastened in the back with a Velcro band. These were made by the Cologne Opera milliner.
Lighting by Moritz von Rappard was stark and spare, using a total of 12 instruments on stands, gelled with Lee 202 blue half-correction. He wanted the lighting to be "as simple and geometric as possible" in order to adapt to all the different spaces the piece would be performed in, and also to avoid highlighting any one character over another or creating special effects that would distract the audience from the staging and music. The fixtures are arranged around the space at different heights so that "the light rises throughout the performance until it has the highest level that can be reached with a single stand, and the shadows become smaller and smaller during the piece. This was the story I was telling through this concept."
While Sequentia strives for musical authenticity, the Hildegurls' mission was to blend Hildegard with high-tech. Each Gurl composed a rock score, based on the original music, for a different act. These were recorded onto a master CD, so the performance is a mixture of the Gurls' live voices and instruments layered and blended with the prerecorded music and vocals. When Lincoln Center Festival added the piece to its roster, the idea was to present a rock concert with the women simply standing onstage, playing instruments and singing into microphones. But when American Opera Projects (AOP) took the production under its wing, it was decided that the story needed to be fleshed out with staging and design.
An intense workshop period ensued, and various designers were brought in. Director Grethe Holby of AOP describes this process as organic, and says that everyone involved jumped into it with enthusiasm, even though they were working on faith and a very limited budget. The plain stage evolved into ramps and platforms of different levels, and to convey some idea of Hildegard's cosmology, a zodiac-like piece of her artwork was painted on the stage, with the names of all the Virtues added for a modern, graffiti-type look. Holby and set designers Franco Colavecchia and Paula Sjoblom conceived and realized the stage design and painting.
Melissa Bruning designed costumes based on what the Gurls wore to rehearsals and seemed to move most comfortably in. She constructed pants, tunics, and jackets of white linen, cotton, and satin, some with subtle sheens or textures in the weave to catch the light. The shapes are at once classic, downtown, and Eastern-flavored, with simple, straight lines.
Sound engineer Manu Corazzini was brought in to balance the CD recording with the live sound and add special effects. He specified an FOH Apogee AE5 sound system with Apogee AE3 stage monitors and Vega wireless mics. To make the Clark Theatre sound larger, he configured the speakers for stereo and added a slight reverb in some sections to make the voices sound more supernatural. He hung extra speakers over the audience so that the sound would reach the back seats without losing power; two more side speakers and one under the seating riser provided even more punch to the Devil's parts, which were only on the CD soundtrack.
Corazzini was assisted by audio consultant Jay Cloidt and production assistant Paul Coffey. "The first three acts are more about taking care of the level between the CD and the mics," Corazzini explains, "and the fourth act is about working the live sound of each instrument, which is more complicated, so I was really glad to have somebody who was dedicated to cueing the CD, so I could focus on my mix." In the final act, the Gurls play electric bass, synthesizer, and percussion, and one Gurl wields a MIDI light wand controller that triggers a sampler.
Lighting could only be added at the last minute, during two days of load-in and tech rehearsal at the Clark; Lincoln Center Festival lighting coordinator Stan Pressner recommended Festival lighting assistant Marcus Doshi for the job. He and director Holby had several meetings to go over the music and discuss what feelings the lighting should convey in the different scenes. "Grethe Holby had a very clear vision of what she wanted to see happen within the piece," Doshi says, "so there was an underlying structure to the lighting that I was able to tap into." Because the Clark is a black box, "all the lights were exposed, there were no borders or wings or legs, so I had to make sure that compositionally I would be able to keep people focused on the action." He started with a basic plot of Lee 201 frontlight, Rosco 3202 crosslight, and clear backlight, because "it was important that whatever I put onstage I would have the opportunity to cut through it so that we could see the great floor of the set." To this he added a red (GAM 250) diagonal backlight system, and red birdies under the round Plexiglas center panel and shooting out from under the upstage platforms, for the Devil vocabulary. Other special color effects included MR-16 footlights in R88 Light Green for an unusual angle and color, and a deep blue (L120 HT) low-angle frontlight to give dimension to the costumes.
The Hildegurls' Electronic Ordo Virtutum was performed again in November at the World Financial Center Winter Garden in New York City; Sequentia toured the show across Europe and the US.