by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, December 16, 2002.
Only in Berlin would an argument over the future of three opera houses take on the dimensions of a constitutional crisis. Here is how things stand in the first days of December: the Social Democratic Party, which governs Germany with the Greens, supports a plan to unite the Staatsoper, on Unter den Linden, with the Deutsche Oper, in the west. Daniel Barenboim, the Staatsoper's music director, fiercely opposes the idea. The Christian Democratic Union, meanwhile, wants to put not only these two companies under one administration but also a third—the smaller-scale Komische Oper. Thomas Flierl, Berlin's cultural tsar, who belongs to the ex-communist Party for Democratic Socialism, has yet to commit himself one way or another. Berliners have lost all patience with this mess, but visiting Americans may be charmed by the fact that politicians here take an interest in opera at all. I realized that my sojourn in Berlin had taken me into uncharted waters when, during an intermission one evening, Professor Christoph Stölzl, the chief of the Berlin C.D.U., took me aside to talk about Arnold Schoenberg. Any right-minded American politician would sooner be photographed dangling a baby over a hotel balcony—as Michael Jackson was, in a startling contribution to the city's musical politics—than be caught dead at the opera.
In the past few months, Berlin's opera houses have maintained their place in the limelight by presenting an array of unusually outré productions. The Komische Oper led with a beery, working-class version of "The Bartered Bride," which the critic Manuel Brug described as "Schmettana instead of Smetana." The Deutsche Oper responded with a "Werther" that had Goethe's star-crossed lovers meeting in a laundromat—a mise en scène so realistic that clothes were seen tumbling in the windows of the dryers. ("Others throw bombs, I direct opera," Sebastian Baumgarten, the gifted but erratic young director, proclaimed.) The Staatsoper weighed in with a heavily congested production of Shostakovich's "The Nose," conceived by the painter Jörg Immendorff. The orchestra wore space-alien bodysuits, while singers and chorus members impersonated major players in Middle Eastern politics, from Saddam Hussein to Kofi Annan. We were even treated to a singing Osama bin Laden. The staging seemed designed to provoke a scandal, and, in anticipation of rotten tomatoes, Immendorff told Der Spiegel that he would go to the première dressed in "washable fabrics." But the scandal of "The Nose" was that there was no scandal; the creative team received a unanimous round of tepid applause. There was no need for Immendorff to drop by the Deutsche Oper to get his laundry done.
Does a city really need three opera houses? Probably not, but Berlin has long taken pride in its embarrassment of operatic riches. If one house closes, the city will end up with the same eminently sensible—and thus eminently predictable—arrangement that applies in New York, Paris, and London. There will be the "big" house, like the Met or Covent Garden, presenting de-luxe productions with international stars; and there will be the "alternative" house, like New York City Opera or English National Opera, staking out slightly more adventurous repertory. With three companies, you never quite know what you're going to get: perhaps a flamboyant diva performance set against a strict Brechtian concept; perhaps a cast of unknowns trapped in an avant-garde nightmare. Since all three houses are strapped for money, you tend to see fewer international stars, more hungry young singers, and, even on the lunatic fringe, better nights of theatre.
The "opera misery," as one critic has dubbed the situation, honors a long local tradition of byzantine cultural-political imbroglios. Many of the same battles were fought in the nineteen-twenties, when the Staatsoper faced competition from two new entities—the Städtische Oper, on the site of the present Deutsche Oper, and the Kroll Oper, on the Platz der Republik. Suddenly, the city had three companies of international reputation, and though it lacked the capital to keep all three going, a brief golden age unfolded. At the Städtische, Bruno Walter electrified the standard repertory with first-rate casts. At the Kroll, Otto Klemperer led legendary avant-garde productions and premières of contemporary works. And, at the Staatsoper, Erich Kleiber presented, among other sensations, the world première of Berg's "Wozzeck." Meanwhile, at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, Kurt Weill unleashed the revolution of "The Threepenny Opera." If I could travel to any time and place in the musical past, it would be to the Berlin of 1928.
Several productions in Berlin this season harked back to the twenties, when, all over Europe, it seemed as though the nineteenth-century art of opera were being remade in a twentieth-century image. "The Nose," a razor-sharp dramatization of Gogol's tale of a nose with a mind of its own, emanated from Bolshevik Russia, where, for an illusory moment, radical art and totalitarian politics went hand in hand. Alexander Zemlinsky's bewitching one-act opera "The Dwarf," which played at the Komische Oper, alongside a companion piece, "A Florentine Tragedy," had its première in 1922, under Klemperer's direction. Finally, at the Deutsche Oper there was Janácek's "Jenu°fa," a 1904 masterwork that found international renown in the twenties. Erich Kleiber's unveiling of the opera in 1924 may have marked the moment when an international audience first came to terms with the overpowering beauty of Janácek's art. The Deutsche Oper, compensating for a series of mishaps that led the magazine Opernwelt to call the house "Vexation of the Year," imported Nikolaus Lehnhoff's magnificent Glyndebourne production of "Jenu°fa," and the sixty-something Anja Silja made a triumphant Berlin return as the benighted, infanticidal Kostelnicka.
Musical Berlin between the wars generates such nostalgia because it heralded a brilliant future that Hitler made sure would never come to pass—one in which the Central European tradition would embrace the snap and tang of twentieth-century life. In the great operas of the twenties, telephones rang, jazz combos played, gangsters wined and dined, serial killers awaited their next victim. This was a worldly modernism—Joyce's, not Schoenberg's. In "The Nose," conventions of character and place disintegrate under the acidic pressure of Shostakovich's youthful style. In "The Dwarf," a heartbreaking fairy tale somehow becomes aware that it is merely a tale, and the leitmotif of the dwarf's longing for beauty—a smattering of notes over three disjointed minor chords—has the tone of a grandmother reading aloud from the books of her childhood. And, in "Jenu°fa," folkish scenes erupt in extreme neurosis and unspeakable violence, with the title character left clinging to her true love amid the ruins. Jiri Kout drew playing of high passion from the Deutsche Oper orchestra: the glorious closing melody surged around the ears like an ever-cresting wave.
Those who are rushing to downsize Berlin's opera system are unlikely to be swayed by the historical argument that when an opera house closes in Berlin nothing good seems to follow. In 1931, the Kroll Oper went under, ostensibly because the Prussian state government had no more money. Its last production, prophetically, was Janácek's "From the House of the Dead." Behind the scenes, right-wing elements had agitated for Klemperer's removal. In 1933, shortly after the Nazis took power, the Reichstag burned, and the new Reich Chancellor, who had longed to direct opera in his youth, moved the Parliament to the Kroll. From that stage, he delivered several of his most horrific speeches, including the announcement of the annihilation of the Jews. For the sake of world peace, it seems wiser to give budding opera directors every possible opportunity to fulfill their ambitions, so that they need not seek out a less suitable vocation.
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