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A farmer, his wife, a beautiful girl and six cows, including meadow cows, air cows and a water calf – this is the very Dutch, yet slightly surreal setting which Misha Mengelberg invented for his music theatre work Koeien (Cows). With the texts and the music of this unfinished project, composer Guus Janssen and director Cherry Duyns have created a performance which is quintessentially Mengelberg, featuring an eccentric character, played by Pierre Bokma, who cannot but remind one of the maestro himself, who turns 80 this year. With a direct view onto the stage, where his old comrades of the ICP Orchestra are playing, he muses to himself, makes comments and – much in the spirit of Mengelberg – delights in causing great confusion.
Koeien (Cows) is an opera by and about composer and pianist Misha Mengelberg (b. Kiev, 1935). The opera is based on Mengelberg's unfinished music theatre work of the same title, adding Mengelberg himself as a character.
Because Mengelberg is no longer able to compose, composer Guus Janssen and writer, film- and theatre director Cherry Duyns – in late 2013 his film Misha enzovoort premiered – teamed up to put together a coherent and performable production using various pieces of music and text from the unfinished version. At the same time, improvisation, which lies at the heart of Mengelberg's music, will also be given ample room in the production. The music will be performed by Mengelberg's very own Instant Composers Pool (ICP), which was formed in 1967. The cast consists of vocal soloists Katrien Baerts (soprano), Fanny Alofs (alto), Mattijs van de Woerd (baritone) and six young singers from the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, complemented by the actors Pierre Bokma, Olga Zuiderhoek and Beppe Costa. The performance's visual design will be in the hands of percussionist Han Bennink, who played with Mengelber for more than half a century and who's also in charge of the ICP's brand identity.
The original idea was to create a performance in three parts, incorporating Mengelberg's pieces Behang (Wallpaper), de Voordracht (the Speech) and Koeien. In the end it was decided to go with Koeien and a few pieces from Voordracht added, forging the various parts into a 75 minute performance. The libretto for Koeien is probably best treated as one long poem. Original in all aspects, Mengelberg's texts unmistakably bear the hallmarks of Dada and Fluxus. Koeien gives us access to Mengelberg's wonderful world: goings on in the countryside involving meadow cows, air cows, a water calf, a beehive in the sky, a farmer and his constantly quarrelsome wife, as well as the captivating Almide, whose alluring looks are putting the farmer in serious danger of temptation.
Actor Pierre Bokma takes the (added) role of Misha Mengelberg. An impersonation of Mengelberg it won't be, but playing him as a warm yet sometimes slightly diabolical man, it will still unmistakably make one think of Mengelberg. Bokma's lines are taken from interviews with Mengelberg through the years, with quotes such as: ‘I can imagine that some musicians are inspired when they see the beautiful legs of a girl in the front row, but for me it doesn't work like that. While I'm playing I very often have the inclination to tease the audience.’ Bokma goes on stage, watches the opera, but also addresses the audience directly with some stories of his own, sometimes in parallel with the action on stage. As he takes the audience by the hand, be sure that at any point he can also abruptly let them go again. Making comments and putting things in relief, he most of all delights – much in the spirit of Mengelberg – in causing great confusion.