De Bijlmer Opera

De Bijlmer Opera (1999)

with financial support of the Fonds voor de Scheppende Toonkunst
first performance: January 18-2000, Theater Bellevue, Amsterdam
Charles van Tassel – mayor (baritone)
Marjanne Kweksilber – Kassandra (mezzo-soprano)
Frans van Deursen – actor
Het Nederlands Zangtheater (choir master: Anthony Zielhorst)
Het Orkest de Volharding
scenery: Siet Zuijderland
director: Peter de Baan
conductor: Ernst van Tiel

The opera tells the life story of the Amsterdam suburb Bijlmermeer, from the beginning in 1933, when, during an international congress of architects, the principles of the Functional City were formulated, until the end, the partial demolition in 1993.
This story is divided into 11 chapters, in chronological order: the development of new theories on house-building in the beginning of the 20th century, the hasty building of houses spurred on by the fast increase in population after the war, the gradual straying from the original plans mainly due to the many cutbacks, the arrival of a kind of inhabitants that was quite different from the kind the new suburb was originally meant for, the growing neglect of the area, the desperate search for solutions and finally, partly stimulated by the devastating consequences of the crashing of an aeroplane on some of the flats, the decision to demolish some of the flats that were causing problems. The new  houses that replaced them had nothing to do anymore with the ideals of the Fundamental City. The theory was overtaken. The Bijlmermeer is dead. The inhabitants mourn.
The architect Le Corbusier, the moving spirit behind the Functional City, had already warned: ‘C’est toujours la vie qui a raison, l’architecte qui a tort’. This is the motto of the opera.

The libretto is by Fer Bank. Besides the 11 scenes, which are made up of verbatim quotes from already existing material concerning the Bijlmermeer, there are also 6 ‘interruptions’ by Kassandra, the prophetess of doom, who, in vain, is warning the inhabitants of the imminent disaster, based on words by Vergilius and Aischylos.

There are three soloists: a baritone playing the role of mayor, a mezzo-soprano playing the role of Kassandra and an actor who plays different roles.
A mixed choir is representing the population.
The orchestra with the instrumentation of the Orkest de Volharding is welding everything together.
Preference is given to a staging in which authentic audio- and video-material is used.
On a separate screen the facts of the history of the Bijlmermeer may be shown by means of text slides.


The stage is dark. Kassandra, the prophetess of doom, is warning the inhabitants: ‘Death is in the air!’ Nobody listens. She runs away, vaguely visible to the audience.
It is spring.
On the screens images of unspoilt meadows. New ideals everywhere. It is 1933. The principles of the Functional City are formulated. Behind the scenes the choir is singing: ‘Nothing is too beautiful  for the worker, who had to do without beauty for such a long time.
After the war the shoulders are put to the wheel. On the screen images of land that is raised. The post-war reconstruction gets into its stride. A few practical problems have to be solved. Joop den Uyl, the alderman for housing, gives his opinion on the choice between high-rise or low-rise buildings. The members of the choir discuss with each other. The supporters of high-rise flats win.
It is 1966. The first foundation pile is put into the ground by the mayor. He sings about the sunny future of the new suburb: ‘No pile has given me more satisfaction’.
Kassandra, who is sleeping under a piece of cardboard between rubbish bags beside a garbage can, wakes up with a start. She wears the clothes of a tramp. Again she is drawing attention to the fate that is hanging over the Bijlmermeer. In vain. Nobody believes her.
It is summer.
The ideals are faced with reality for the first time. Especially the cutbacks take their toll. The mayor sings about the ideals. The actor, playing the role of a civil servant who has been closely involved in the building of the Bijlmermeer, tells what has gone wrong in the harsh reality.
The original information film, in which the new suburb is promoted as heaven on earth, is shown. During the show the actor, playing the role of family doctor in the Bijlmermeer, enters the stage. Contrasting sharply with the optimistic tone of the film, he tells about the many practical problems the first inhabitants of the Bijlmermeer had to face.
The inhabitants start to rise in revolt. The choir enter the stage divided into groups carrying banners. They fiercely protest against the rents which are much too high. Quotes from a remarkably positive, local government leaflet are shown on a slide. It causes great commotion. Unnoticed a man from Surinam has entered the stage. When everybody has gone, he stays behind. He is very upset. He has just arrived from the airport, carrying his luggage. He doesn’t know where to go to.
He meets Kassandra. She describes in expressive words the disaster that is in store for the Bijlmermeer. He doesn’t understand her at all.
It is autumn.
The enthusiasm of the beginning has gone. The situation is getting out of hand. The inhabitants come from a different stratum of society than the one the Bijlmermeer was meant for. The man from Surinam is still there. Who can help him? A woman from Surinam explains to an interviewer why her children have gone to Holland.
The inhabitants of the Bijlmermeer are made up of different races, nationalities and religions. The mayor sings about the religions, the choir are enumerating the nationalities and the actor, in the role of inhabitant of a flat, tells who is living above, under and beside him.
It is 1980. The problems are accumulating. The Bijlmermeer is in danger of sinking into the swamp it used to be. The mayor is desparate. He expresses his feelings in a dark aria.
Kassandra is getting impatient, Fate knocks on the door. Fleeing is the only sensible thing to do. Still, nobody is paying attention to her words.
It is winter.
In despair a final attempt is made to turn the tide. All sort of experts are consulted. The actor, playing the role of an American expert, explains where the shoe pinches. He suggests some corrections. At the same time the mayor is bearing up. He stimulates the search for solutions. The choir are also reviewing a great number of potential solutions. At last a authoritarian voice is heard through a loudspeaker. An architect is amplifying a plan to save the Bijlmermeer in a jargon that is completely unintelligible for the average listener. He is shut up by a slide on which are the words, once said by the alderman for housing, Jan Schaefer: ‘You cannot live in bullshit’.
The inhabitants are keeping their spirits up. They have a cheerful party. A few times the music and dancing stop abruptly and the sound of an aeroplane that is landing becomes louder and louder. At last the noise has become unbearable and is drowning every other sound. Then it suddenly stops. It is dark and silent. The Bijlmermeer is dead.
Kassandra crosses the stage, pushing a trolley with a television in it, on which real images of the 1992 crashing of a cargo plane on the Bijlmermeer, are shown.
Requiem on the words by Le Corbusier: ‘C’est toujours la vie qui a raison, l’architecte qui a tort’.


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