Hercules (2019)

Hercules is a soldiers opera on a libretto by Valentijn Dhaenens. It is written for baritone Bastiaan Everink and soprano Annemarie Kremer and is scored for symphony orchestra and electronics. The approximately 40 minutes long piece was commissioned by the Zaterdagmatinee-concert series and was premiered at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw on September 28 2019, by the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by James Gaffigan.

The title Hercules does not refer to the mythological figure, but rather to the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, the enormously capacious military transport aircraft which has been in use since the mid-fifties. It is renowned for the profound hum, produced by its four engines. This bass drone is at the basis of much of the electronic music of the score.

Before becoming a singer, Bastiaan Everink was a member of the Korps Mariniers, the elite forces of the Dutch army, and was stationed in Irak during the first Gulf War (1990/’91). In his book Strijdtoneel (Theatre of war) he writes about these experiences, and about his transition into a powerful baritone voice, after having heard Wagner’s Parsifal on occasion. Valentijn Dhaenens libretto is loosely based on Bastiaan Everink’s life.

The five acts of Hercules are titled Heart, Shoulder, Tongue, Head and Belly. The first act relates of a soldier, named He, on the eve of being sent out on a mission, lying on his cot in a barrack, sleepless amidst his fellow soldiers and pondering about the last encounter with his girlfriend.

Now, just before dawn, we are one.
One sleeping body, with 60 lungs filling up and letting go.
How can they…rest, snore, surrender themselves to the dead of night?

In Shoulder, the second act, he has landed abroad and is out on patrol, vigilant and edgy. Qua patet orbis, (As wide as the world reaches) the motto of the Korps Mariniers, rings out. Increasingly nervous and agitated, he starts to scream at the still invisible enemy, luring in the distance. Suddenly, a roadside bomb explodes and he is severely injured.

In a split second…
My buddy’s head…
from his body…

Tongue is the movement where She appears, being a mixture of an angel and a nurse:

God, my soldier is wounded.
I’m coming to you
Seeking your healing touch
Through my hands
In the name of Jesus.

She tries to heal and comfort him. He can barely talk because part of his face is blown away. Though barely conscious, he starts to realize the predicament he is in:

I move my tongue in my mouth,
Teeth gone.
All of them.
Ground to bleak powder.

In Head we see how he is slowly recovering, but struggling with depression. The new reality of his battered appearance is sinking in and makes him contemplate suicide. He calls his former girlfriend, it appears that in the mean time she has married someone else.

No man, no body, no man.
A broken bird has wrung its neck.
What have I got left?

In Belly, the finale, he is inside of a Hercules plane, deployed on a new mission, ready to jump and parachute himself out into the open.

Hercules,old steel bird,
swallow me down your belly,
take me up there one more time,
deafen me with your engine drone…