History of Humankind as Dark Art

An anti-authoritarian opera by Heiner Goebbels

19 Oct 2003
Heiner Müller
Müller's circle: Heiner Goebbels


The beginning of Kluge’s Prime Time feature about Heiner Goebbel’s opera “Landscape with Distant Relatives” (premiere 2002, at the Grand Théâtre in Geneva with the “Ensemble Modern”) shows scenes from the first, second and fourth act, which convey an impression of the opera’s music and imagery.

Goebbel’s production is exceptional because of the equal importance and plurality of dramatic forms of expression, like acting, text and music, against the conventions of theater (“against the hierarchy of theatrical means”). In line with a quote from Giordano Bruno’s “About the infinite, the universe, and the worlds” that is recited twice during the opera, in which Bruno questions the hierarchy of the universe in the geocentric model, Goebbels attempts to treat all the artistic elements equally in his production.

Similarly, Goebbels is opposed to a hierarchic, authoritarian way of directing that dictates a fixed artistic concept. Instead, team spirit is crucial. Especially with the “Ensemble Modern,” a self-managed group of soloists without an art director, it was possible to develop the opera in a collaborative process, in which everyone had to constantly negotiate their role and position.

The aesthetics of the opera are shaped by the constantly altering double role of the ensemble members as musicians in the orchestra pit, and actors on stage. Goebbels also got inspiration from motifs in visual art: The photographs of Albanian artist Sislej Xhafa provided the idea for a sequence in the first act, in which musicians appear on stage in masks. Goebbels is fascinated by the “strange balance of terror and beauty” in the imagery, which, instead of making a clear statement, asks the audience to think, to take a position. In his music, Goebbels tries to express the same ambiguous tension.