Stockholm Syndrome
Kaspars Groševs, Artist

Against the background of a live broadcast from Stockholm’s Berwald Concert Hall, of the opening concert of the Baltic Sea Festival, dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the restoration of the independence of the Baltic countries, I try to return in my mind, breathing heavily, to one of the tarnished buildings of Andrejsala. This was the venue in late August for a performance of Kaspars Rolštein’s “experimental opera” Stockholm Syndrome. Under the direction of Regnārs Vaivars, it brought together a crowd of young actors and performers (including, surprisingly for me, Aija Vītoliņa otherwise known as Amber, who until now I had never envisaged singing about “shitty edges” and glue sniffing), as well as Mr Rolšteins’ own group Orchestral Magnetaphones in the Dark.

Latvian is one if the few European languages without a separate Wikipedia article on the Stockholm syndrome.


More than a month will pass before these sentences are printed in colour on paper, and the impressions of all those involved and in attendance will have been ironed out, a little faded and dissipated with the flow of time. More or less successful photographic freeze frames have been taken: here and there a semi-exposed bottom, singers with eyes rolling, the viewers “dispersed” around the sides and many, many plastic bags strewn about, up and down. These are the first things you notice on entering the darkened event/crime scene, pierced in places by unrelenting projectors. Like a quietly humming bass frequency, the ragged decorations begin feeding or crushing the preconceptions which arise when people spending a short span of time together reduce the dimensions of the space and take their places in the hall, which, as it soon turns out, is also a playground. Information read somewhere before states that during the performance it is permitted to take photographs, to film, talk on the phone and to communicate in other ways. But, even more importantly, there are toilets somewhere too.

The warnings heralded with boyish excitement about the anti-cipated impressive noise level of the show and the earplugs handed out at the entrance are probably intended for the production’s ideal viewer: a surprised, shocked, perhaps even offended person desperately covering their ears in utter disgust. One is led to think this by the large doses of trash-aesthetics in the costumes and scenery, the noisy moments in the musical part of the opera and the shouting actors and the things they have been directed to do. About eleven minutes into the show, unexpectedly or rather quite logically I was prompted to recall the most famous creation of British comedian Steve Coogan: the uptight bourgeois TV personality Alan Partridge. The most awkward moments on his talk show Knowing Me Knowing You (the title borrowed from ABBA, by the way) were caused by guests from a French “contemporary circus,” where the usual clown act was mixed up with a hefty serving of sex and violence, becoming simultaneously a “contemporary art” cliché and a detonator for the simmering rage of the narrow-minded Partridge. The swaying and yelling of the plastic-wrapped Stockholm Syndrome assassins, the exaggeratedly mimed copulation and many other elements of the show cry out for a collective visit from the anonymous commentators on Delfi [news portal], arriving from the furtherest corners of the country in a stuffy Ikarus bus. Instead, the audience is a gathering of rather polite people, some smiling, others not, and still others who are trying to avoid the constant assaults from various body parts in the show.

Those who have prepared more thoroughly may have several reasons to smile. The libretto by Mr Rolšteins, published in advance on the internet, contains a number of witty phrases which are, of course, harder to hear during the actual performance. For those wishing to draw parallels with the 1997 production Rolstein on the Beach, the libretto may be the most useful material. The formally colourful, occasionally amusing, but largely nightmarish text has been created in a similarly surreal manner, but that’s also where the comparisons are likely to end.

This time again the whole thing has been called an opera, and in textbooks it could be conveniently filed under the chapter “postmodernism.” No longer in the music are there any traces of synthesizers, programmed rhythms or the slightly rickety order typical of Hardijs Lediņš, behind which stubbornly smoulders the abyss of chaos. Instead, the main weapons of OMD are guitars, as well as a gong, a flute and possibly some other trifles, and their fortress has been built as a large pile of guitar amp “cabinets”. Musically, the influence of the group Sunn O))) and the breath of its drone genre can be felt throughout, with mostly plainly and hollowly thudding guitars, overlapped by various extra elements such as an effective asphalt crusher solo. In the rehearsal recordings available on the internet, the rumbling humming of OMD is convincingly supplemented by Regnārs Vaivars’ throat singing, moaning, growling and wheezing. However, an undoubtedly vital place in the opera is allocated to the text, which the actors diligently try to sing, leaving very few openings for instrumental interludes. Some do a better job than others, but no one spares their vocal chords and occasionally the sound is like the lost heroes of the rock opera Lāčplēsis. As a result, very little remains of the noisy threats and threatening noises, the correct singing parts against the minimalist, even quite ascetic musical accompaniment virtually like two foreign bodies with incompatible blood groups. The question arises as to why, in a show presented as a contemporary, radical version of the opera genre, the voices hover somewhere between tradition and inexpressiveness. Unfortunately, in the end Vaivars is the only one who is allowed to roar and growl, and then only in the invisible rehearsals, while in the show itself he is allotted only a sad electronic cigar.
Bjorns Dugamla-Dufria (Emīls Kivlenieks). View from the opera 'Stockholm Syndrome', Andrejsala. 2011
Photo: Edmunds Vanags
Devotchka (Aija Vītoliņa). View from the opera 'Stockholm Syndrome', Andrejsala. 2011
Photo: Edmunds Vanags
View from the opera 'Stockholm Syndrome', Andrejsala. 2011
Photo: Edmunds Vanags
Kaspars Rolšteins and 'Orchestral'. View from the opera 'Stockholm Syndrome', Andrejsala. 2011
Photo: Edmunds Vanags
Ieva Rubeze. The opera 'Stockholm Syndrome' logo. 2010
It could be said that both Rolstein on the Beach and Stockholm Syndrome are attempts to tell grand, colourful stories through music. Here we should mention Robert Ashley, who assigns an important role text and visuality in his music. In his slightly surreal and subtly ironic operas he takes an unashamedly personal approach to an unhurried telling of the story, in calm and measured vocal tones merging ascetic musicality with heartfelt recitatives (Perfect Lives, 1977–1983). The to an extent similar lightness and almost moving simplicity evident in the music for Rolstein on the Beach collapses under the clumsy constructions which penetrate the location of Stockholm Syndrome with annoying regularity.

The less sharp members of the public are quickly drawn into the commotion of events, with the scaffolding as the central element of the stage design shifting from one corner to another, while the actors crash in from all sides, meaning that those present are not only encouraged, but forced, to change their positions. Stockholm Syndrome disrupts the existing order in the same way as the early summer performance of Ibsen’s ‘Hedda’ did, where stage designer Reinis Dzudzilo had built an impressive set featuring a house with many windows through which viewers could watch the proceedings from a height of several metres or just centimetres away. In the place where the stage would normally be, the OMD ladies and gentlemen energetically prance about throughout the performance, while the space, wrapped in plastic like a piece of dodgy meat from the local butcher’s, becomes a whirling playground.

However, despite the free-wheeling, that is not to say – chaotic – arrangements, for the first few minutes of the show one may be confused or even slightly alienated by the soundless mouth and staring eyes of the rake thin Bjorn Dugamla-Dufria. The sonorous voice of the official from the Swedish Finansinspektion seems to have wandered off and can be heard from a completely different side, or from behind, begging us to believe in the hero’s mission to jump off a kiosk roof somewhere in Imanta [a suburb of Riga]. Across from the scattered scenery stands the STEREO, concentrating all of the sound (including the instrumental accompaniment and the actors’ voices) at one end of the space, and so in the first moments it is difficult to get used to the silent mouths and their lost words. It is possible that they have missed an opportunity not only to expand the area of activity, but also to free the sound from the magnetophone orchestra pit.

Instead, the space is enclosed from three sides by video installations by Ģirts Korps, which muddy the location of action even further and refuse to give the eyes a moment’s rest. While I usually like Korps’ moving pictures, this time the main focus should have been on the threatening characters and their toy guns.

Undoubtedly, the show moves faster than an hour and a half at the Stende bus stop, nevertheless towards the end, the half plastic, well-toned bodies, the relentless waves of sound and scintillating pixels merge into a moderately homogenous substance that some may call tiring and others boring.

The concert tour of Latvia’s screaming actors concludes in a longish pool, where the youngest and fittest thrash around like fish out of water, while the singing elements repeat the last cosmic mantras. In the midst of this mess, somewhere in the libretto there should appear the comments sent in by Mr Rolšteins’ Twitter fans, such as, “Don’t nail the egg to the cross...” (Ilmārs Šlāpins), however they are neither to be seen nor heard – perhaps the asphalt crusher is to blame.

Many of the eloquently named characters have managed to transform themselves several times over the course of 90 minutes, some altering their gender and others merely their plastic costumes and props, and their location relative to the water level. Occasionally a sack of flour is scattered with a puff, but individual viewers may get a broad bean or two (probably without salt). During the show, the Swedes, the residents of Stende, IMF assassins and the Bank of Latvia Androgynous Reaction Team travel from Stende to Riga and into Outer Space, ultimately nimbly worming their way into white plastic cocoons and entering probably the last logical phase of transformation. All that remains is the magnetophone orchestra’s interpretation of silence.

“Noise. Vibration. What comes next? We here at Andrejsala are now hostages to our fear of losing our minds and our libidos. And that’s no comic opera!” Part of the modest advertising campaign for the opera was a short YouTube clip comprising the complaints (genuinely fictitious) of Andrejsala residents about the upcoming event. Mr Rolšteins’ sense of humour is in good order.

I don’t know about the mental capacity and libido of Andrejsala’s remaining residents, but in the end the opera enjoyed five well-attended performances, which were recorded and stored in various data carriers and, judging by what is on the internet, were well received. This gives reason to suggest that in future there may be more attempts to shake the ground under the viewers’ feet by mixing up words and sounds. As Mr Rolšteins said, with a straight face, in an interview with the magazine Rīgas Laiks, “the role of music is (..) to generate unusual feelings”.

These unusual feelings were in most cases achieved, albeit leaving behind an indistinct aftertaste – was the show an organised 90-minute assault on all the senses, or a sensory, slightly amateurish jumble of random elements brought together by an equally accidental libretto, with each part trying to go off in a separate direction? In the second case, the production becomes almost like a friendly drinking session, during which it is possible to either reach a collective higher level of consciousness, or quite simply to get into a brawl, causing the angry neighbours to summon the police.

/Translator into English: Filips Birzulis/
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