‘Beethoven Wars’: Beethoven meets Manga at La Seine Musicale


Insula Orchestra conductor Laurence Equilbey has joined forces with director Antonin Baudry and Accentus Choir to stage the world premiere of ‘Beethoven Wars’, a multimedia animated Manga ‘space opera’ that draws on two lesser known works by Beethoven.

Premiered on Saturday 26 May 2024 at La Seine Musicale, the hour-long work was commissioned by Equilbey who, during a visit to the French Animation Festival in 2022 was inspired by Manga’s similarity with opera in its treatment of themes such as heroism, tragedy, love and loss.

Beethoven Wars is scored for orchestra (including harp and glass harmonium), chorus with two soloist roles – spoken and sung – Stephan and Gisèle, premiered by soprano Ellen Giacone and bass Matthieu Heim.

On a distant planet, Stephan and Gisèle look on a universe devastated by war. As an epic intergalactic battle ensues to bring them back to their home planet Earth, we wait to see whether the pair will find peace and harmony, or even survive.

The work, 18 months in production, draws on the original largely forgotten musical dramas by Beethoven King Stephan and The Ruins of Athens. With librettos written in 1811 by August von Kotzebue both works celebrate heroism, and act as a historical signpost for the advent of law and peace in Europe. In performance there were no cuts to either score which included chorus and two soloists.

The artwork – glorious Manga illustrations guaranteed to transport any middle age adult back to their comic reading childhood – is projected on a 50 square metre screen that wraps 200 degrees around the interior of La Seine Musicale. Underneath, the musicians of Accentus and Insula Orchestra are dwarfed by the projections, though their sound, amplified in places was balanced well. The projection onto the curved screen is via four Barco UDX-4K 40 video projectors.

It has a captivating effect. Sharp lines and vivid colours make the action utterly enthralling. The sound of the period performance ensembles gives the story a gritty, if counter-intuitively modern sound, creating an added layer of urgency to the story. The imagery is vision-mixed live following Equilbey’s direction of the score, giving the complete work a pleasingly organic feel.

The live action from soprano Ellen Giacone and bass Matthieu Heim in the Ruins of Athens sequence is integrated with a keen eye for visual detail, their costumes and considerable making matching the crumbling disintegration of Athens depicted on the screen above them.

It’s a phenomenally stylish piece of entertainment, eagerly appreciated by an excitable young audience – all round a different-looking audience compared to other Insula concerts. By making something new (as opposed to offering a live orchestral accompaniment to an existing product) there’s an air of sophistication to it. Drawing on rarely heard scores by Beethoven there’s something new to discover for the Beethoven aficionado too. Both scores are presented uncut, are highly efficient and work in effect like an early silent film score by Beethoven.

Though the size and cost of the production in its present form might make touring challenging, Beethoven Wars does demonstrate possibilities of how to frame opera in different formats. How might a similar treatment of other operas support an existing full-blown production? Could a cut-down animation with live voices and orchestra appeal to a different audience? How might contemporary composers new works benefit from a similar approach?

Within the context of Insula Orchestra and Laurence Equilbey’s track record the award-winning Beethoven Wars is one in an ever-increasing line of innovative projects that challenge the conventions of how to present classical repertoire. Previous projects have seen the conductor realise the original sketches of Mozart’s Requiem with choreographed sequences involving dancers, a rotating stage and a slide. In 2023 Equilbey collaborated with visual artist Matt Collishaw on Sky Burial, a thought-provoking dystopian setting of Faure’s Requiem. The production appeared at Barbican in London, later in the year.

With support from the Hauts-de-Seine department, Equilbey established the renowned period performance ensemble Insula Orchestra in 2012, later taking up residency at the then newly constructed Seine Musicale, on the Seguin Island, in April 2017, on the edge of Paris’ financial district. The distinctive geodesic dome that surrounds the concert hall and makes up part of the multi-function venue on the banks of the Seine, also features in the Beethoven Wars artwork within which, at the end of the film a Manga version of Equilbey herself is seen conducting an orchestra.

Equilbey has worked with BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Montréal Symphonic Orchestra, Philharmonia, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the orchestras of Lyon, Liège or Leipzig, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, and  Camerata Salzburg, amongst others.

Beethoven Wars secured the ‘augmented live performance’ award in ‘Programme d’Investissements d’Avenir’ – part of the French Government’s ‘France Relance 2030’ plan to support artistic development in the digital sector.

It was a co-production with Le Grand Theatre de Provence et l’Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liege. Executive production provided by Les Improductibles. Artistic production Emilien Dessons, 2D production by Je Suis Bien Content, Studios O’Bahams provided sound design, and Fosphor were responsible for video mapping.

Beethoven Wars premieres at Le Seine Musicale, Paris on Thursday 23 May and runs twice daily until Sunday 26 May