A planned performance of excerpts from the avant-garde 20th-century masterpiece has drawn condemnations of “elitism”.

Director Pierre Audi’s two-decade tenure with the Dutch National Opera has been slated to culminate in 2019 with a mammoth three-day performance of selections from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s masterpiece Licht, a week-long cycle of operas consisting of 29 hours of music. But the choice of repertoire has drawn the ire of a number of concert-goers, with a petition addressed to Audi calling for the performance to be cancelled.

The petition levels accusations of “elitism” at Stockhausen’s opera cycle, questions the funding arrangements and condemns comments the composer made in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the USA.

Cologne Opera’s 2011 production of Sonntag from Licht, photo © Klaus Rudolph

Stockhausen made his controversial comments days after 9-11, stating that the attacks were “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.” He continued, “Minds achieving something in an act that we couldn’t even dream of in music, people rehearsing like mad for ten years, preparing fanatically for a concert, and then dying; just imagine what happened there. You have people who are that focused on a performance and then 5,000 people are dispatched to the afterlife, in a single moment. I couldn’t do that. By comparison, we composers are nothing. Artists, too, sometimes try to go beyond the limits of what is feasible and conceivable, so that we wake up, so that we open ourselves to another world.” While the composer later claimed he had been misunderstood and sought to clarify his comments, the remarks have continued to haunt his legacy.

The petition has stirred up a furore in the comments section of Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc, where it was first reported, with some commenters condemning Stockhausen’s work and others belittling the petition, which attracted 50 supporters and another 150 on Facebook, as being short on musicologists and journalists of note.

“We understand that Aus Licht is a prestigious farewell gift for the outgoing artistic director Pierre Audi, whose merits are beyond doubt. Nevertheless, we can not ignore the political reality,” the petition states. “We ask the Holland Festival, the Royal Conservatory in The Hague and in particular the main producer, The National Opera, to seriously reconsider the planned performance of Stockhausen’s Aus Licht.

The performance of Licht has long been a dream of Audi. “The LICHT cycle of Karlheinz Stockhausen is the most radical and utopic opera project in the history of music – theatre,” he said in a statement on the Dutch National Opera’s website. “Dutch National Opera is proud to be a major producer in creating the first ever project surveying substantial parts of all seven operas. This unique immersive experience entitled appropriately aus LICHT will be staged in the magical setting of the Gashouder enabling us for the first time to witness another dimension of opera as a life changing experience. Attending Stockhausen concerts at the age of 12 sealed my passion for contemporary music and opera. I am thrilled to serve this amazing project as the culmination of thirty years of work in Amsterdam and a climax to the many ground breaking projects DNO has been able coproduce especially with the Holland Festival since it was founded.”