My first opera was Labyrinth, a sort of opera.
As a theatre-happening it got its first and only production in the 1966 Holland Festival, under Bruno Maderna.

foto's Labyrinth: Maria Austria
foto's Labyrinth: Maria Austria Labyrinth was made and prepared by a team consisting of a compoiser, a writer, a painter, a director, a choreographer and a filmmaker.

It caused a lot of clamour in an already uproarious city.
The Provo movement - the youth movement that changed the face of the Netherlands beyond recognition - had its headquarters in my house.

In that turbulent year Labyrinth was filmed for a TV documentary by Henk de By about my work: 'Signalement'.

foto's Labyrinth: Maria Austria

Separate parts of the score have been performed as
Dances from the Labyrinth, for orchestra, and
Choruses from the Labyrinth, for choir and orchestra.

From the four-track tapes of Labyrinth I extracted my only electronic work: a manipulation of the human voice, called The Aleph (after Borges).

Program note

Labyrint [Labyrinth], op. 15 (1964)
a kind of opera
alt ten basso-profondo 4-part mixed choir
3334 4332 timp 4perc hp pf str(
instr. soloists: cl-b perc pf cb
dancers, 4track tape and film
libretto: Lodewijk de Boer after De Paradijsvogel
[The Bird of Paradise] by Louis Paul Boon
duration: 180'

Dansen uit het Labyrint
[Dances from the Labyrinth], op. 15a (1963)
for orchestra
3334 4332 timp 3perc hp pf str(
duration: 17'
commissioned by the city of Amsterdam

The Aleph
(from Labyrinth), op. 15
electronic music


After a misleading journey to Cuba in 1968, guided by Harry Mulisch, I initiated another collective work, this one with five composers and two authors: Reconstruction, a morality.
It was first performed in the Holland Festival 1969 as a big cabaret performance - with great public success, because all main issues in Holland are decided by cabaret. Consequently it was never revived, being rapidly outdated.
For musical and moral reasons I rejected this work even before it had been completed. The ridiculously ugly, 12 meter high statue of Che Guevara, erected during the performance, of polystyrene foam and armed with a gun, became for me the symbol of the big flaws of the sixties, of its dangerously conceited naiveté, of the moral grandstanding called Hollandites. After Labyrinth this was my second attempt to create an utopian 'teamwork'.

Artistically it was a complete eclecticistic hoax, a big ideological and musical mess, blocking a natural compositional development in Holland for a long time. (In fact till a next generation of young composers had repeated the experience in the nineties with the same disastrous musical result - because a pencil can only be used by one hand.)
Even before the last scene of Reconstruction was completed former friends became staunch enemies for the rest of their life's - as usually happens with a bolsjevist revolution.
After this big split one of the comrade composers became a repetitive American minimalist, another developed even more than before his rigid fixation on European serialism, yet another on improvisation (calling it 'instant composing') whereas the remaining one stopped composing altogether, switching to the more lucrative executive power

In the mean time I was (as always in good old bolsjevist tradition) openly (and secretly: behind the screens) declared to be
'a dishonorable traitor' and 'a renegade'.
I had to fight the battle against 'the bias of progress' (Stephen Jay Gould) for many years, even after the fall of the Wall, and that certainly could have brought bitterness into my heart had I not gone on composing in my attic one interesting new piece after another In a steady stream of creativity, supported by a Composers fund that made me really independent and allowed me to speak my mind . More free, I guess, than anyone ever in the history of human composing.

But whether it be serialism, minimalism or improvisationalism, the blasphemous foam of the Guevara-statue in Reconstruction became for me the symbol of the stagnation of the sixtees (rather than its revolution), and I feel partly responsible for that. The 'morality' certainly was the greatest mistake in my personal and musical orbit - for which, naturally, I had to pay a price.

Program note

Reconstructie (1969)
a morality, composed together with
Louis Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw,
Misha Mengelberg and Jan van Vlijmen
soloists 3mixed choirs(4-part) rec 0340 3sax 0331 2g el.
cemb cembalet clavinet pianet 5el.org 2pf 4vla 5vc cb electronics
libretto: Hugo Claus, Harry Mulisch
duration: 130'



My next three operas - Houdini, Monkey, and Symposion - proved to be more viable undertakings.

foto's Houdini: Jaap Pieper
foto's Houdini: Jaap Pieper After watching, in the early seventies, a BBC documentary about Harry Houdini, the great magician and escape artist, I asked the British poet Adrian Mitchell (whose TO YOU and To WHOM I already had set to music) to write an opera libretto for me.

Not only the dramatic quality of Houdini's life, but also the Orphic theme that ran through it (the hero looking for his love beyond death) attracted me.
(See also the essay Orfeo Mundi from Het componeren van de hemel).
Houdini, a circus-opera, got its first production in the Holland Festival 1977 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Hans Vonk. It was revived two years later, and also produced by the Aspen Festival in the United States, under Richard Dufallo. The public and critical response was overwhelming.
foto's Houdini: Jaap Pieper
foto's Houdini: Jaap Pieper

The theme of Houdini - man liberating himself from self-imposed confinement - will always be actual as long as there will be humans. Writing it freed me from the emotional fetters of the post-war grief-generation I belong to.
A performance in Berlin when the Wall came down would have been very poignant indeed.

Four parts of this opera:
Houdini Symphony;
May '75 - a song of liberation;
I am Houdini - a ballet to sing, and the
Letter Scene,
have been performed separately

A television registration of the second production in the Amsterdam Carré Theatre has been made for the national Theatre Institue by Floris Guntenaar, who also designed the stage for Houdini, Aap and Symposion


foto's Houdini: Jaap Pieper

Program note

Houdini, op. 25 (1976)
a circus opera
7 soloists 4-part mixed choir 3334 4342
6perc steeldrums 2hp 2vl-2vla-vc-solo(ampl.) str
dancers escapologists acrobats
libretto: Adrian Mitchell
duration: 145'
commissioned by Hans de Roo
and the Ne-therlands Opera Foundation

foto's Houdini: Jaap Pieper

May '75, a song of liberation, op. 25a (1975),
for soloists, mixed choir and orchestra
is arranged by me for concert performances.
Duration: 12' Police-scene from the opera Houdini (Scene 9)
sopr-m bar 4-part mixed choir 3333 4330 6perc 2hp str
text: Adrian Mitchell
Duration: 8'

The Letter Scene, for tenor and piano.
Duration: 9'


In contrast to the large forces needed for HOUDINI (symphony-orchestra, steel drums, mixed choir, seven soloists, dancers and acrobats), my next opera AAP only required twelve musicians, five soloists and a group of martial artists. It was premièred in the 1980 Holland Festival and retaken in 1998.


AAP was the result of a birthday present to me by my life-long friend and collaborator Floris Guntenaar. The booklet (Marten Toonder's favourite cartoon) contained one of the many Monkey-stories from the seventeenth century that are still very popular in China and elsewhere. It was published again in Peking in 1964, during the otherwise devastating Cultural Revolution of Mao, and soon found its way to the West.
I was immediately captured by the fascinating plot of this story: the dramatic explosion of an illusion in a brilliantly designed form. For me it was, besides much more, an expression of my political view on the anti-missile demonstrations in those days (the 'Hollanditis'). I identified with Monkey in his relentless fight against the Grand Illusion, i.e. the one-party utopia that held the countries of the East in a lethal grip
AAP will be presented here (in due time) as the first cartoon-opera on internet.

The work consists of two acts, each lasting about half an hour. You can now hear the climax of the second act from the cd of the Reisopera.

Program note

Aap verslaat de knekelgeest
[Monkey sub-dues the White-Bone Demon], op. 28 (1980)
a cartoon-opera
sopr ten ten-c bar bas-bar mime-players acrobats
fl ob cl bn h perc cemb 2vl vla vc cb
libretto: Peter Schat, Eng. transl. Jonathan Reeder
duration: 65'
commissioned by Hans de Roo of the Netherlands Opera Foundation.


My last opera until now is also the longest: Symposion, with a duration of three and a half hours.

foto's Symposion: Deen van Meerfoto's Symposion: Deen van Meer foto's Symposion: Deen van Meer
foto's Symposion: Deen van Meer The drama is based on two stories, one dealing with Plato's Symposion (the famous banquet of Socrates and his friends, discussing love), and the other with Tchaikovsky's final days.

The story of Tchaikovsky's extorted suicide (for reasons of his homosexuality) was brought to the West in the early eighties by the well-known Russian musicologist Alexandra Orlova.
See book: The Tone Clock - chapter 9

On these two pillars the poet Gerrit Komrij wrote a rich and many-faceted libretto for me.

The work had its première in 1994, again under Hans Vonk ('my Mengelberg', as I use to call him).
A television registration of the first performance of Symposion has been made by Hans Hulscher.

foto's Symposion: Deen van Meer

foto's Symposion: Deen van Meer

foto's Symposion: Deen van Meer

Program note

SYMPOSION [Symposium],
op. 33 (1982-1989)
opera in two acts
2sopr sopr-m 4ten 2bar 2bass 4-part mixed choir
3343 3sax 4332 3-4perc 3mar 2hp str dancers
libretto: Gerrit Komrij
duration: 210'
commissioned by Gerard Mortier and the National Opera of Brussels
piano-reduction by Roland Voortman

DE TREIN [The Train], op. 33a (1989)
opening scene from the opera Symposion
for 5 male voices and orchestra
ten 3bar bass 3343 3sax 4332 3perc 3mar 2hp str
text: Gerrit Komrij
duration: 55'

foto's Symposion: Deen van Meer