Posts Tagged ‘Akademie der Künste’

Expunged ‘Tannhäuser’ opens Debate on Artistic Freedom

Friday, May 17th, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid

The tolerance of German audiences for extreme stage productions is a source of national pride and the envy of many abroad. But a production of Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein which had to be stripped down to concert performance last week has set off a national debate about the sanctity of a director’s artistic freedom. Two seasons ago, the Bayreuth Festival mounted the same opera in a new production by Sebastian Baumgartner which places the heroine, Elisabeth, in a “biogas” chamber. It caused a moral outcry in the press, but the notion of her being “recycled” rather than outright gassed appears to have kept the staging in repertoire. In Düsseldorf, at the Oper am Rhein, the director Burkhard C. Kosminski went a step too far. Naked extras were already being gassed during the overture. An entire family was shot after its members had their heads shaven by soldiers. Venus was dressed in an SS uniform; Elisabeth was raped and burned. The boos in the small city of Düsseldorf started 30 minutes into the production, according to Der Spiegel, and some audience members were so traumatized that they needed medical attention. Criticism from the Jewish community was just the icing on the cake. But Kosminski refused to modify his vision, for fear of betraying his artistic principles. Less than a week after its premiere on May 4, the opera was reduced to a concert version.

The obvious issue, which audience members were quick to point out, is that Nazis and persecuted Jews have nothing to do with Tannhäuser. The opera is about a pilgrim who leaves Venus’ world of love-making, enters a song competition on the Wartburg, and finds redemption in the saintly Elisabeth. An editorial in the German magazine Cicero , dedicated to the intersection of arts and politics, observes that a director turns to Nazis when he has no good ideas of own. The author continues to criticize Germany’s lavish public funding for theater, calling Hitler its “patron saint.” It may be worth noting that the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, a shared entity of the nearby cities of Düssseldorf and Duisburg, nearly entered financial meltdown last season. Was the production a desperate attempt to lend the company a cutting-edge status capable of competing with the many other opera houses in West Germany (let’s not forget that the reunited country possesses altogether one-seventh of the world’s companies)?

In an interview with Der Spiegel this week, Kosminski states the “real scandal” at hand is “censorship in the arts.” He insists that the production intended to mourn, not ridicule, the victims of World War Two, describing himself as “terrified” by criticism from the Jewish community. Just yesterday, he won the support of the president of the Akademie der Künste, Klaus Staeck, who has written a letter demanding that the production be reinstated. “Art—regardless of its quality!—is not a superfluous luxury,” he argues. Is it then justified to use art as a vehicle for emotional torture? And is quality not an important criterium when good tax money is being invested? From a purely literary point of view, there is little to no basis for casting Tannhäuser as a war criminal who is forced into the SS guard. Surely Greek myth is more important to understanding the opera than Wagner’s indirect connection to the Holocaust as a role model of Hitler.

Although the opera derives its plot in part from Thuringian legend, there is little in the way of nationalist undertones compared to later works such as Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Parsifal and, to some extent, the Ring cycle. Patrice Chéreau caused a scandal upon the centenary of the Bayreuth Festival in 1976 by setting the cycle at the time of early German industrialization. This is a loaded topic, given the industrial killings that followed during World War Two, but the production opened the door to historical allegory on the Festspielhaus stage. Stefan Herheim’s 2008 production of Parsifal, which opens in the Villa Wahnfried in the 1880s and ends in the Federal Republic of Bonn, plumbs the possibilities even further. The appearance of swastika flags and black-and-white footage from the Second World War remains controversial, but Herheim caused the audience to think critically about the inextricability of Wagner’s works from his time and the institution of Bayreuth itself.

Kosminski, through his graphic depictions of the violence and genocide, crossed a threshold that was already at breaking point. Although I didn’t see the production first-hand, the audience’s reaction would indicate that he lacked the sophistication of a director such as Chéreau or Herheim. The exploitation of World War Two—not just to artistic ends but in the media and in academia—has reached a point of saturation in Germany that, thanks to the reaction at the Oper am Rhein, should finally be considered cause for concern. Artistic freedom does not license a director to indulge his darkest fantasies or work out psychological issues at the expense of an opera. Do we go to the theater to be provoked, reviled and confused, or enlightened and transported by an interpretation that allows us to penetrate a given work with more understanding and appreciation? Wagner may remain a thorn in the cultural consciousness, but it is not paying respect to anyone—neither the composer, the German people, nor the Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust—to use his stage works as vehicles for cheap, shock tactics under the pretence of creating socially relevant art. As austerity plagues Europe, it is even more shameful to invest in stage productions that ruin rather than illuminate an opera.

Après lui, le déluge…reflections on Wagner at the Akademie der Künste

Friday, February 1st, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid

Richard Wagner has managed to slowly dominate the scene internationally in recent seasons, but with the official arrival of his bicentenary, the saturation in Germany has only begun. Nürnberg, Leipzig, Munich and Dresden have unveiled new exhibits; in the latter’s case, an entire new building. A stream of publications has hit the market, leading Nike Wagner—rebellious daughter of Wieland, one-time bidder for the Bayreuth Festival upon Wolfgang’s resignation—to point her finger at the ‘tsunami-like influx’ (NB: her book Über Wagner comes out February 20). And then there’s the 15-hour opera. Klaus Zehelein, president of the Deutscher Bühnenverein (German Stage Association), called for a moratorium on Ring cycles last June. ‘We should leave the work alone, ideally worldwide,’ he said, denouncing centenary programming as a series of ‘encyclopedic events without artistic relevance.’

In what may be an attempt to provide an antidote, the exhibit, lecture and stage production series Wagner 2013 Künstlerpositionen at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste has set out to grapple with the German master’s polarizing effect and his place in artists’ lives, from painters to contemporary composers. A spokesperson explained that the concept arose from the international enthusiasm for Wagner and was intended to take place prior to this year. Why that didn’t happen is anyone’s guess. On January 27 the academy invited four composers and academy initiates of different generations—Dieter Schnebel, Erhard Grosskopf, Manos Tsangaris, and Enno Poppe—to discuss their relationships to Wagner in the same hall that is exhibiting the legendary rat costumes from Hans Neuenfels’ 2010 production of Lohengrin in Bayreuth.

Musicologist and moderator Jürg Stenzl opened the dialogue with a quote from Pierre Boulez, who declared Wagner ‘forgotten music’ for his generation and invited the composers to express their views on the issue. Schnebel, born in 1930, admitted that he had been corrupted as a child of Nazi times and, upon re-listening to Tristan post-war, couldn’t resist. His Wagner-Idyll (1980), for soprano and chamber orchestra, reworks the lines of Gurnemanz, the veteran knight in Parsifal, into Sprechgesang for a mezzo-soprano—naturally a subversive use of the material. At the other end of the spectrum, Poppe considers Wagner a ‘historical phenomenon,’ much as he considers Nazi Germany part of the past.

None of the composers stated they could ‘believe’ in Wagner. He is too ambiguous, a man who works with symbols, said Schnebel, as opposed to Verdi, whose operas he considers ‘clear cut’ and ‘music of reality.’ This is a fair assessment, although morality is far from clear cut in an opera such as La Traviata (based on the life of the singer Giuseppina Strepponi, whom the composer married). Nor is it true that Verdi didn’t work with symbols—he used entire allegories. The Jewish people in Nabucco represent Italians fighting for liberation from the Hapsburg Empire; the title character of Rigoletto is a disguised king.

Stenzl ended the discussion with a quote from Mauricio Kagel who, upon Beethoven’s centenary, suggested that there be a hiatus from his music for an entire year so that ‘we could then look forward to January 1’ (for a hilarious commentary of the mania around Beethoven, see Kagel’s film Ludwig Van). Tsangaris suggested that, contrary to Cage—who was feted for an entire year at the Akademie der Künste last year—there is already enough interest in Wagner from the public at large (perhaps the academy should have taken up the centenaries of Britten and Lutoslawski instead?). Poppe joked that we will need a ten year break from the Ring because the singers will have to recover their voices.

By many accounts, the music world is already weary. In New York, Robert Lepage’s colossal, machine-generated cycle has provoked a scandal of seemingly irreparable proportions. In Berlin resentment has long been brewing over a tetralogy that the Staatsoper mounted in co-production with La Scala, yielding a light, futuristic aesthetic that one critic likened to a Star Wars film. Meanwhile, in Milan, the decision to open the season with a new Lohengrin by Claus Guth was more than enough to leave national pride wounded in a country where people sing along to the ‘Brindisi’ on New Year’s Day. Still, few can ward off an endless fascination for Wagner, even if it necessitates psychiatric support (as Simon Rattle recently joked in an interview with Die Zeit). For better or for worse, we will be wandering the dark forests of myth for the next year.

Infektion! ‘Europeras 3&4’ and Rihm’s ‘Dionysus’ at the Staatsoper

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

Infektion!, the name of the Staatsoper’s annual Festival for New Music Theater could easily extend to describe the presence of John Cage in Germany this year. No other country outside the U.S. has planned as many events for his centenary of his birth, and Berlin is in some people’s minds already ‘Caged out.’ The Akademie der Künste has been holding a multi-disciplinary, year-long retrospective since last fall; the annual new music festival MärzMusik dedicated itself to Cage and Consequences, flying in Joan La Barbara and the entire Sonic Arts Lounge. Cage’s works will take center stage next week in Darmstadt, where his 1958 visit “swept across the European avant-garde like a natural disaster,” in the words of German musicologist Carl Darlhaus. His Europeras 1&2, which premiered in Frankfurt in 1987 and received their last U.S. performance at the MOMA in 1992 (the year of Cage’s death), will be revived next month at the Ruhrtriennale. Meanwhile, at the Berliner Staatsoper, Die Musik ist los—100 Jahre John Cage (July 1-15) features six-hour evenings of Cage in ad hoc programming that includes his Europeras 3&4. The German premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Dionysus, a Salzburg Festival commission from 2010; a revival of the Staatsoper production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress; and a recital with Ian Bostridge are also officially part of the festival, just founded last year.

Cage’s Europeras, of which he wrote five altogether, are intended as a negation of opera, particularly in its synthesis of the arts into a Gesamtkunstwerk. “For 200 years the Europeans have sent us their operas,” the composer reportedly commented. “Now I am returning them all to them.” The first two include ten and nine singers, respectively, in extracts from over 60 operas, with sets and costumes that are meant coexist independently like objets trouvés. The third and fourth, which premiered in London in 1990, are more modest in scale: Europera 3 features six singers in a capella arias of his or her own choice, two pianists in excerpts from Liszt’s Opera Phantasien and 12 record-players, while Europera 4 dwindles to two singers, a wind-up gramophone, and a pianist. A ticking digital clock substitutes for a conductor to synchronize the Happenings, which overlap comically and sometimes irritatingly into a non-linear plot of sorts that is left to the viewer’s imagination.

Seen July 11 in the Werkstatt of the Schiller Theater, a small wing which the Staatsoper uses to stage new music theater, the singers walked onto strategically numbered platforms that also served as seats for the audience (most moved around at will). Unfinished excerpts of Liszt’s at times schmaltzy transcriptions yielded to the entrance of well-known arias, which were sometimes sung over more than one album of opera music. The cacophony built into a messy  tapestry of sound that must be a challenge for even the best-trained singer; all were equipped with pitch forks, while the most prominent figure onstage, the soprano Esther Lee, in a tutu and giant plaster mask, had her iPhone (replete with a bunny-eared case) in hand for assistance. Singing one cameo aria after another, from “Dove Sono” to “Sempre Libera,” Lee eventually dropped dead, while a Papageno in leather pants (Roman Trekel) stepped over her in insouciance. This being anti-opera, the female heroine eventually rose for more drama (stage direction by Sophia Simitzis), although her booming timbre became increasingly metallic. Alfredo Daza assumed a kind of Don Giovanni figure as he cavorted around in a robe. He also broke out into the aria antica “O mio dolce ardor” so well-known to voice students, blocking his ear from the waves of Liszt emanating from the piano. Blaring record players intermittently asserted their dominance. Just toward the end of the 110 minutes, the theme from Die Walkyrie charged in unopposed, a satisfying close to an otherwise frustrating musical experience.

Esther Lee drops dead from singing too many arias (c) Staatsoper Berlin

Europera 4 proved more redeeming in its simplicity (and brevity, clocking in at 30:00). The presence of René Pape was overwhelmingly powerful as he sang Sarastro’s arias from Die Zauberflöte, opening the production with “O Isis und Osiris” offstage. As he stood just inches away from the audience in a black cape at the center of the room, the immediacy of his rich, visceral tone, crisp diction, and emotional calm left this listener nearly speechless. The effect turned comic as he put on sunglasses and addressed Trekel with “In diesen heiligen Hallen” (stage direction by Isabel Ostermann). Trekel, emerging in an acid washed suit, had the audience in stiches as he sang through “Ra la la la, ra la la la, heisse Mutter, ich bin da.” The wind-up gramophone had its own comic appeal as old recordings interrupted wiltingly through the cylinder, while Pape continued to amuse as he sat at a baby grand to play air piano (a friend noted that everyone stopped paying attention to the actual pianist, Günther Albers, across the room). “Bella Figlia dell’Amore” was the last artifact to emerge from the gramophone before the lights fell.

René Pape in 'Europeras 4' (c) Staatsoper Berlin

The program continued unexpectedly with a Qi Gong session on the small lawn in front of the Schiller Theater, just in time for those emerging from the intermission of Dionysus to watch us in bewilderment. The non-hierarchical nature of the Happening, which transforms audience members into their own kind of spectacle, also fulfills the increasing demands on arts institutions for interactive audience participation. Despite some shades of absurdity, the fluid movement, stretching, and deep breathing (even if many weren’t wearing the right clothing) was in fact an ideal precursor to a performance of Nicholas Isherwood’s attempt at Japanese throat singing with a meditation bowl, echoed by another singer at the back of the Werkstatt theater space. One can only imagine how happy Cage would be to know that eastern forms of recreation are slowly finding common ground with European tradition, even if westerners continue to pose with their pretensions to worldly virtue, and that Berlin’s leading opera house indulges in such radical programming. The evening opened on a more clichéd note with a performance of 4’33’’ on a tiny toy piano outside the theater. Robert Farkas sat cross-legged playing silently as cars rumbled past, the original idea of mocking concert hall convention evolving into a more abstract, Cagean concept.


Wolfgang Rihm has become a familiar presence in the concert hall this season, starting with the Musikfest last fall and continuing with MärzMusik, which took his 60th birthday as an opportunity to posit his neo-Romantic idiom as an opposite ‘pole’ to Cage’s anarchic experimentalism—a perplexing bit of programming that nevertheless emphasizes both composers’ reactionary position with regard to the Darmstadt School. In contrast to Cage, who turned increasingly to chance operations and non-musical material in his last years, Rihm only seems to become more Romantic with age. His most recent stage work, the ‘fantasy opera’ Dionysus, takes Nietzsche’s Dionysus Dithrambs as well as the poem Klage der Ariadne as the basis for a self-devised libretto that explores the quest of N. (a character embodying both Nietzsche and Dionysus) for truth and in and out of his conflicted and, in this case, thoroughly nebulous relationship with Ariadne, whom according to Greek myth the god of wine and fertility seduced and deified. The opera, seen at the German premiere on July 8, opens to a sea where N. is taunted by nymphs, travels through Hades and ends on “A plaza. The horse. The skin.”—referencing Nietzsche’s exposure to the flogging of a horse that is said to have precipitated his mental breakdown. Apollo “a guest” accompanies N. only to taunt him: “I am also your labyrinth,” he tells Ariadne in the opening scene, while ensembles of sirens continue to reappear with teasing allure.

References to Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte appear in both the libretto and score, with a flute emerging prominently throughout the opera. The Wagnerian undertones also assert themselves from the opening scene (Rhine maidens) as well as in primordial, brooding harmonies, while Ariadne directly quotes Richard Strauss in the opening tableau. The opera’s quasi-philosophical precepts range from gripping to confounding. It is a journey through the mind of Nietzsche, his struggle to reconcile the destructive powers of an infinite quest for knowledge—“Selbsthenker (my own executioner)” N. repeats in the second tableau, while the ‘The Guest’ counters with “Selbstkenner (your own connoisseur)— yet Rihm also attempts to embed the highly erotic story of Dionysus and Ariadne into this dialectic, making the plot more labyrinthine than many viewers could handle. The music follows this pattern naturally, morphing freely from lush tonality into unsettling dissonance, such as in the female chorus “Tag meines Lebens” which suddenly transforms into a group of anti-sirens. The music in Hades teeters on the edge of insanity, yielding to a raw percussion interlude. As the conductor Ingo Metzmacher states in the program notes, no one knows his craft better than Rihm. The laughing staccato of nymphs in the opening tableau and sinister eroticism that emerges through his orchestration may place Dionysus firmly in the German Romantic tradition, and yet the score lacks the clear deliberation and cohesiveness of earlier stage works such as Proserpina , and even this score had a tendency to wind too freely through the rivers of Hades.

Sets by Jonathan Meese evoke a dark, expressionist fantasy world, drawing carefully upon the symbolism in Rihm’s text while bringing a provocative touch one would only expect from the German ‘enfant terrible.’ While the sloppy black and white drawings assigned to the Dionysian chorus and the “Total Horsebee” at the end are irritatingly tongue-in-cheek, the opening cliff on which N. rows to no avail and the giant bottle and beach balls in the brothel of the third tableau are deliciously imaginative despite the kitsch factor. Meese’s aesthetic was well-matched by Pierre Audi’s direction, who counters Rihm’s intellectual weight with subtly subversive humor. While the contrast was at times jarring and threatened to oversimplify the opera’s internal quest, Audi brought a fresh contemporary approach to a stage work that would have dragged its feet insufferably with a more cerebral approach. Costumes by Jorge Jara were at their height in the bulging female costumes of Hades; lighting by Jean Kalman created artful shadows and further propelled the opera into the realms of the unconscious.

'Magic Flute' references in 'Dionysus' (c) Ruth Walz

Mojca Erdmann, in the role of Ariadne, proved why Rihm has found inspiration in her stratospheric if somewhat soubrette-like soprano, razor-sharp musicality and dramatic flexibility. A sprite seductress throughout, she inhabited the opera’s mercurial terrain with poise. Replacing Georg Nigl as N., James Cleverton, who also sang at the Salzburg premiere, convincingly conveyed the character’s emotional frustration vocally and dramatically. The tenor Matthias Klink was an effectively jeering Apollo despite some strain in the upper range. And yet the female voices ultimately sang the men offshore, with Canadian soprano Elin Rombo bringing smooth, full-bodied tones to the stage, complimented gloriously by mezzo Virpi Raisanen and alto Julia Faylenbogen in ensemble numbers. The Staatskapelle performed incisively yet with calm expressivity under Metzmacher, Germany’s leading conductor for new music, also testifying to the quality that Daniel Barenboim has cultivated as music director of this orchestra. The musicians brought velvety phrasing to Straussian turns while following Metzmacher’s precise conducting through the unpredictable contours of Rihm’s score, which expired into dust after failing to help N. find his way.

Sets by performance artist Jonathan Meese (c) Ruth Walz