A new opera, based on the writings of the 15th-century anchoress Suster Bertken was premiered on December 4th 2010 at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw by the ASKO/Schònberg Ensemble conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, soprano Katrien Baerts, baritone Hubert Claessens and boy-sopranos James Dugan and Leopold Benedict. The piece was very well received by the audience and the press. Plans for further performances of Suster Bertken, both fully staged as well as concert performances, are being developed. The cd of Suster Bertken was released in June on the Attacca-label. (Attacca CD2011-126)
Suster Bertken (Sister Bertha) was born in Utrecht, either in 1426 or '27 and died on June 25, 1514. When she was about thirty years old, she had herself locked up in a small brick cell next to the Buurkerk in Utrecht, to spend the rest of her days in meditation. Her outlook on the world was limited to two tiny windows; one gave view to the altar, enabling her to witness the masses that were performed there, and the other looked out on the street. Through this window, she received food and help with her basic needs, and in return she would give good advice to passers by and rendered her prose and poetry to those who were interested. It was commonly thought in the Middle Ages that an anchoress, due to her isolation and ascetic lifestyle, was in direct, or in each case a closer, contact to God. Many would come to an anchoress with a request to pray for them, or their familymembers. Suster Bertken was known for her harsh and Spartan lifestyle, that went far beyond the already strict rules for those who wished to devote their lives to God. She was always barefoot, never used any fire, dairy products or meat, and was dressed in all seasons in a coarse hair cloth and a simple, grey dress. That her work was popular amongst her contemporaries, can be measured by the fact that it was printed, and reprinted, until several generations after her death, not only in Utrecht, but elsewhere, in Leiden and Antwerp, as well.
An enclosure was accompanied by a ritual. A priest, usually the Bishop, said a Requiem Mass. A woman who renounced the worldly life formally died and was therefore consciously present at her own burial. The priest would then ask a number of questions enquiring after the intentions of the aspiring anchoress, and if they were answered in the affirmative she disappeared into her cell forever. In my Requiem the ceremony is performed by Prior Dirck van Malsen, the man who held the keys to Bertken’s cell.
Reading Suster Bertken’s Kersttractaet [Christmas Tract] was what really won me over, and it also showed me how the piece was to take shape from then on. The Tractaet tells the story of the birth of Jesus, but seen from the Virgin Mary’s perspective. The Holy Virgin begins to tingle and to be transparent, floating up from the soil before shooting upwards like a rocket into the sky, past angels’ choirs, to the very highest. There, as in a flash, she sees God and faints. At that moment the delivery takes place, painlessly: ‘like an arrow that slides through the air, and is neither hindered nor obstructed by the air, nor is the air injured by the arrow’. Gently the angels lower her down to earth again where she regains consciousness when the baby Jesus cries. The text of the Tractaet gives rise to a circular motion in the piece from a freely desired worldly death to an imaginary birth. The text, moreover, is vibrant with the fervent longing for a child and links up perfectly, and remarkably, with Nietzsche’s observation that it is all women’s deepest wish to give birth to the Uebermensch.
The fourth movement, A wonderful sound came to me, is an intermezzo with a markedly meditative character, in which I have tried, as much as possible, to melt instrumental music and singing together. It forms a bridge between the ‘worldly noises’ of the previous movements and the leap into the divine in the rest of the piece. In the Raising up to Heaven, the fifth movement, the text of the Kersttractaet begins. It is interesting to see how the increasingly ecstatic character of the text gives rise to a process of identification. It may start as a fairly neutral story about Mary, but in the sixth movement The sweet, gentle child Jesus, one begins to suspect that it is rather Suster Bertken’s own breasts that give succour to the Redeemer. The birth of Jesus coincides with the death of Suster Bertken. In the final movement Hodie mecum eris in Paradiso He sings, in the form of two boy sopranos, to his mother in words that foreshadow his own death on the cross.
Robert Zuidam, november 2010