Letter from Berlin

For a country that will, in all probability, receive – as early as tomorrow in Brussels – an «early warning» for bending the tough deficit rules of Europe’s single currency, three opera houses living off government handouts, in one single capital, seems extravagantly exorbitant. All right, New York, Paris and Vienna can boast two lyrical theaters. Athens has none – that is in its own house. But three! Who could possibly afford such a luxury while the rate of unemployed – 4 million – rises steadily in the country with the slowest growth in Europe? This dream city for opera-goers owes this affluence to its previous division and to the Wall. The palatial Staatsoper at the Unter den Linden, founded in 1742 by the Prussian monarchy, was considered by the East as propaganda worthy of generous subsidies. I still remember the days when the auditorium was full with uniformed allies – including the Greeks who maintained a Military Mission in Berlin up to the ’70s. At the time opera audiences, even in the poor East, dressed up to do justice to the chandeliers and the – Russian – champagne in the crash bar. Second there is the Komische Oper, which was created in 1947 and still performs only in German. Third is the Deutsche Oper, in the West, built in what in the early ’60s was considered as modern architecture. For a city with ambitions to become the cultural center of central Europe, $500 million a year for 10 years to subsidize its cultural institutions, sounds more than enough. But that was in the era of the initial excitement of unification. «After providing just $105 million a year for three years, the subsidies were cut off entirely. That’s what forced the (state) Schiller Theater in former West Berlin to close» says Traute Hildebrandt, former press officer of the Berlinale. Recently in three-piece operatic Berlin I experienced one of the most famous tales of poverty-cum-love, jealousy and artistic temperaments: All elements which form the basis for Puccini’s «La Boheme,» possibly the most popular opera of all time. Ditching the tradition, the Komische Oper (under the general management of the youthful Albert Kost, whose main job is to get hold of enough cash to pay the hordes of people involved in a production) presents a traditionally glamorous repertoire, cannily tailored to contemporary concerns. It includes Georg Friedrich Handel’s «Tamerlano,» Mozart and Rossini, but also modern works such as Aribert Reiman’s «House of Bernarda Alba» and Benjamin Britten’s «Turn of the Screw,» which will have its premiere next March. Their «La Boheme» is a real visual feast, impeccably planned to the last detail and making good use of an enthusiastic and highly talented young cast. (The night I saw it Sabine Passow sang Mimi, Christine Buffle was Musette, Harrie van der Plas was Rodolphe and Michael Kraus was Marcel.) And it was refreshing to see «La Boheme» performed by singers as young as the characters they play. The same happened with Charles Gounod’s «Romeo und Julia» (starring Johannes Chum and Fionnuala McCarthy) that I saw the following evening at the Komische Oper. Here the set (by Hans Schavernoch) was dominated by a broad stairway and five enormous chandeliers that were raised and lowered meaningfully. With drastic interventions (fortunately also in the musical score of a rather sentimental Charles Gounod, 1818-1893), the producer, I. Kupfer, has recreated a rather diverse opera which the critic of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung — contrary to myself – did not seem to like in the least. An excerpt from his review, titled «Shakespeare Scrubbed with a Stiff Brush,» reads as follows: «Love goes to the dogs in this production, which premiered on November 25. Charm, grace and magic have been thoroughly exorcised from the piece in the interests of delivering a message, starting with Hans-Jochen Genzel’s new translation.» A different vision. Nevertheless, anything happening on stage was decisively upstaged by what was happening in the pit. Winfried Mueller conducted quite magnificently. I have seen four opera works during the last two weeks. Could it be just a coincidence that there is no getting away from the fact that death in lyric theater is manifest in a multitude of works and cases? Normally (!) in «La Boheme» – an outstanding example of verismo or realism – before the leading lady dies, she staggers about quite a bit, leaning on any chair that happens to be around and knocking over a few pieces of stage luggage. In the Komische Oper’s version, Mimi sits stubbornly even after expiring. On the other hand, in Bob Wilson’s static «Aida» – I reported in this column on that from Brussels last week – the soprano Norma Fantini remained uninvolved until the bitter end. If memory serves, not so long ago in Benjamin Britten’s «Turn of the Screw» in the Athens Concert Hall, producer Thomas Moschopoulos showed his magnificent ability in handling a death scene. Now Berlin is also renowned for its splendid museums. Some of them are «theatrical» museums, meaning the animation of objects through sound, movies, robotics, lighting and effects, to add drama and possibly some sort of message. Inaugurated a year ago, Berlin’s Jewish Museum, shaped as a broken Star of David, with towering cold and empty spaces, commemorates Jewish life in Germany plus the steadily uneasy relationship between Germans and Jews. This museum understandably ignores all aspects of Disneyland theatrical aesthetics so colloquial in the trade. Yet a visit there can strangely provoke the same feelings that one gets at the opera: unreality made even more unreal. Only that here there is nothing to sing about.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.