A small performance with divine ambitions

A small performance with divine ambitions, is how mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Levental and director Chris Koolmees describe The Oracle, the latest production from their company LEKS. They call it a “theatrical ritual” and the subject resonates in this Passion Time: they combine the refined music of Liszt’s Via Crucis with the poem cyclegreet God by Eva Gerlach and Sasja Janssen, in which man and God conduct a dialogue. Over the next week, they’ll be playing their alternate Passion three times – a respectable number. But it doesn’t stop there: „We play The Oracle at least another ten years”, says Levental confidently.

Does that sound like a boast? Well no. Levental and Koolmees, also partners in daily life, know what they are talking about. The first part of their trilogy about Levental’s childhood, The route, they have played 220 times since 2015 – an unheard of number for musical theatre. Koolmees: “If all goes well, you can play a music theater performance in the Netherlands nine times in the large halls. Once or four is more realistic. While musical theater is incredibly difficult to assemble. I think that’s a waste of capital.”

That is why the two decided to take a different approach: they mainly focus on the small theaters and stages, of which there are countless in the Netherlands, for about one hundred to two hundred visitors per evening. Before corona, they performed on average three times a week in this way, without a cent of subsidy. They drive all over the country in a van, like old-fashioned troubadours. Koolmees designs the sets in such a way that they are easy to transport.

‘Thai temple’

Last summer they were already a number of times with The Oracle in the Lioba Monastery in Egmond aan Zee – a suitable location for research into rituals and spirituality. The decor, on the interface of seriousness and parody, consists of “a Thai temple on a golden mountain”, says Koolmees. It is in the guest room of their home in East Amsterdam, among the other props.

the decoron the interface of seriousness and parody, consists of “a Thai temple on a golden mountain”, says Koolmees. Photo Eric Brinkhorst

„That big soup pot over there is queen of spades”, points Koolmees. „And that table is La voix humaine† They are compact packages that can be slid into the back of the van. They have a repertoire of six performances that they can perform more or less on demand: the three dates for The Oracle were only booked last month.

“We make our performances completely independently, only then do we sell them. The public judges our work, and so it should be. If you want to be eligible for a subsidy, your work will be assessed by all kinds of network figures, even before it has even been made,” says Koolmees. To avoid misunderstandings: they are not against subsidies, on the contrary. “But the current system mainly subsidizes large institutions. You should support the small places where we play. You never see many people who come there in the theater. We think it is important to reach our entire potential audience and not just the ten percent who buy theater tickets anyway.”

And it is not as if they are making artistic concessions, says Levental, who recently made his debut with Dutch National Opera: “We choose complex music, for example Pierrot Lunaire by Schoenberg or work by Raskatov. People come for our stories, they often don’t know the music. But you see them getting hit. The reaction in the eyes of your audience is more beautiful than the glamor of the Concertgebouw.”

Levental was born in Uzbekistan and came to the Netherlands as a sixteen-year-old refugee. That’s about it The route† the second part of their trilogy, The borderis based on her experiences in refugee camps and the final part, queen of spades, is about her grandmother, who once fled from Ukraine to Uzbekistan. Much of Levental’s family lives in Ukraine and the war affects her deeply. It has given the stories of the trilogy a poignant topicality; they still play all three parts regularly.

Ekaterina Levental in The OraclePhoto Eric Brinkhorst

Silence and reflection

The Oracle is a different kind of performance, sober and boneless, an abstract ritual about a god who dies and a man who remains behind. It was composer René Samson who pointed out the dialogue between Gerlach and Janssen, but Samson died before he could compose the music. In the end, Levental and Koolmees decided to make the performance after all, with the stations of the cross by Liszt. The Oracle is dedicated to Samsom.

Levental, of secular Jewish descent, was never very concerned with religion, Koolmees had a strict Catholic upbringing. But The Oracle is not a reckoning: “We used to have the church, where rich and poor got on their knees and everyone sang together. That would be a pretty good idea today, actually. Where can we still find time for silence and reflection? Art can also provide that shared experience.”

In The Oracle Levental fulfills the role of priestess, looking for connection with herself, the other and the higher. She sings the choral parts of Via Crucis live using a voice changer programmed to calculate the harmony voices. This electronic effect plays its own role in the piece. Koolmees: „We are not concerned with the best performance ever of Via Crucisit’s about getting the story across, reaching and touching the audience.”

Also read this interview with Levental about her 2020 Medtner CDs: ‘When I sing Medtner, it’s as if he understands me better than I do’

It’s easy for a director to say that, of course, but what’s that like for Levental, as a classical singer and harpist drilled in the continuous pursuit of perfection? Complicated, she says. It took a “brave step” to let go of that pursuit: “But it’s wonderful to be liberated from myself. I have a deep realization that it is not about me. You must be willing to sacrifice yourself to something greater. 220 times The route playing is the best learning experience I could have wished for.”

The Oracle: 8/4 (Groningen), 9/4 (Eindhoven) & 13/4 (Amsterdam). Inl: leks.nu

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