The Lamp – Huba de Graaff writes compelling opera on Srebrenica genocide

Arnout Lems & Helmert Woudenberg (c) Bowie Verschuuren

How to make theatre out of the genocide that took place 25 years ago in Srebrenica, librettist Erik-Ward Geerlings and composer Huba de Graaff wondered. They soon realised that the murder of some 8000 Bosnian Muslims was too wide-ranging. They decided to catch the epic in the personal by zooming in on one single aspect: the homecoming of Colonel Thom Karremans after the fall of the enclave in July 1995.

They centred on the lamp that Serbian general Ratko Mladić presented to the Dutchbat commander just before commencing his mass murder of the Muslim men. The images of the skittish Karremans (‘For my wife?’), who then laughingly toasts with the ruthless murderer, were aired all over the world. They are also shown in The Lamp, a striking title that underlines the everyday banality of this ‘domestic drama’.

Silent prosecutor and witness

For the entire duration of the opera, the table-lamp stands pat in the middle of the stage, in a checkered plastic shopping bag, as a silent prosecutor and witness. Pianist Charlie Bo Meijering, dressed in camouflage pants and wearing a soldier’s cap, carries it onstage at the beginning of the performance and carefully deposits it. Initially, Ratko Mladić (Helmert Woudenberg) also has a silent role. Standing in a corner or leaning on a chair, he watches the awkward conversation between ‘K.’ (the excellent baritone Arnout Lems) and his wife (the no less wonderful mezzo-soprano Esther Kuiper).

Mrs. K. responds to his homecoming with little enthusiasm. What does that lamp mean she wants to know, and where did he get it? I bought it for you, he claims. But she’s seen the television footage and refuses to sleep with him. She bitterly accuses him of lying to Mladić when he said he missed his two children. Isn’t he aware how traumatic it’s been for her that they never had children? – As if I were only thinking of you, he snarls, I was responsible for 300 men. Meijering pounds rattling chords on his piano.

Truncated sentences, rigid melodies

With short, truncated sentences the libretto makes the unbridgeable gap between the couple palpable. K. is completely trapped in the world of his own propriety and rejects any attempt at rapprochement. No, it wasn’t really difficult there and he has not been afraid, it wasn’t all that bad. Neither does he acknowledge that Mladić humiliated him for all the world to see: the general only did his duty, he is a pro.

The music is perfectly tailored to the distressing action. K. and his wife sing rigid, monosyllabic melodies in a slow, drawn-out, tempo. The piano accompaniment is equally ossified and unresponsive, the direction provides a minimum of interaction. The characters mostly sing head-on, with straight faces that do not betray emotion. K. stands legs spread apart, like the tough soldier he imagines himself to be, she messes around with cups and saucers. K.’s voice however jumps uncontrolled to the highest register on the word ‘genocide’.

Bullied like a patsy

Roaring electronic doublings and dissenting voices that regularly pop up under K. create an ominous atmosphere. Sleeping on the couch he has nightmares. Then we see the well-known television footage in which Karremans allows himself to be bullied like a patsy by Mladić, who marches through Srebrenica as a victor, jovially shakes hands with his soldiers. When K. wakes his wife with a scream of fear, he dismisses her concern: he hasn’t heard anyone scream, let alone himself. At such moments Meijering plays sweetly innocent tunes on his piano, nailing us to our seats.

When Mrs. K. disgustedly accuses her husband of cowardice and announces to leave him, Mladić steps forward and fires off a long diatribe against K. He is not a man: he cannot even conceive children and relies on the air support that will never come. K. explodes for an instant. He drags the pianist from behind his instrument, furiously bangs the keys with both his hands and shouts that the Serbs will be ‘blown out of their boots’. Then he collapses, powerless.

Food for thought

Mladić carries on and on, relentlessly summing up all K.’s failures and shortcomings, as if he were now the voice of his conscience. This is somewhat unconvincing, the more so since his text is too long and one-dimensional to hold attention. A male choir, gradually joined by female voices sing an ever louder and dramatic Bosnian lament, while Mladić imperiously walks from the stage and climbs the steps leading into the audience. Just when you think: now it’s finished, he roars: ‘Pull the plug!’ – A dire anti-climax.

After this Mrs. K. comfortingly seats herself next to her husband on the couch: he is safe, nobody blames him for anything, ‘every human being has a right to a weak moment’. Behind them appears footage of idyllic natural beauty and intact houses, accompanied by romantic piano sounds. Then we see a mass execution and the curtain falls.

Apart from Mladić’s endless rant and the maudlin ending, The Lamp is a compelling production that provides much food for thought.

More info and playlist: https://www.hubadegraaff.com/lamp/

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In 2015 the 20th anniversary of the Srbrenica genocide was commemmorated with an oratorio by Pablo Escande on a libretto by Paul Kapteyn. I wrote about it for Cultuurpers. The premiere was filmed and can be viewed here.

About theaderks

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, who studied musicology at Amsterdam University. She' specialized in contemporary music and always has an eye open for women composers. In 2014 she wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd, updated print 2020) and in 2018 she published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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