A Don Giovanni Straddling Two Worlds

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On Saturday, August 12, 1961, hundreds of East Berliners took advantage of the temperate weather to leave town for the weekend. That night, the East German government began to lay the groundwork for what would become the most potent image of the Cold War.

The Berlin Wall took civilians by surprise when it was unofficially-officially erected on August 13 (the actual edifice with its intricately booby-trapped death-strip would happen much later), families were unintentionally separated between East and West and what many consider to be the real terror of the Soviet-occupied sectors of Germany began in earnest.

A little over a month after Barbed-Wire Sunday, in the Western sector of the city (a sector now surrounded on all sides by communist East Germany), another unveiling happened with less surprise but equal occasion: The Deutsche Oper Berlin inaugurated its newly built house on Bismarckstrasse on September 24 with a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

There were last-minute adjustments to the performance’s personnel, accounting for those singers, musicians, stagehands and construction workers who were now prevented from crossing the border to go to work. Images of East German soldiers and barbed wire and East Berlin citizens jumping out of windows hoping to land—alive—in the West were still predominant in news feeds around the world. Internally, publications like Neues Deutschland were churning out what historian Frederick Taylor describes in his book The Berlin Wall as “distortion[s] worthy of Goebbels’ lie factory.” People had already attempted escapes, some successfully (exactly one week before Giovanni premiered, a truck drove through the then-fledgling barrier), others less so (there were three fatal shootings at the border by October 12 and more casualties of escapees jumping and not withstanding the fall).

And so the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Don Giovanni, which is now 50 years later available on DVD courtesy of Berlin-based label Arthaus Musik, becomes a far more charged viewing experience beyond a superb cast that includes Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role, helmed by the gone-too-soon conductor Ferenc Fricsay. As West Berlin was rebuilding itself post-War, East Berlin began the systematic process of stagnating its citizens in the Soviet machine. The war the latter waged against the former’s bourgeois leanings rings just as true in the servants and peasants rallying against the noble Don; such class-consciousness was a muddied focal point of Michael Grandage’s recent production for the Met. (Curiously, however, in this Berlin Giovanni, one of Zerlina’s solo lines in the finale is given in this production to Donna Elvira, a move bound to raise some opera-loving politburo eyebrows.)

And there’s also the insurmountable loss felt by Donna Anna in the wake of her father’s murder, one expressed in “Non mi dir” (on DVD sung by Elisabeth Grümmer) which director Walter Felsenstein describes as “permeated with a strange, otherworldly feeling: the Larghetto seems to be more a farewell than a pledge, and the Allegretto moderato is aglow with the hope of redemption. There is no doubt that death is in her thoughts.” Felsenstein believed that, when Anna requests Don Ottavio to postpone their long-delayed marriage by another year, she does not intend to live to the end of the year.

Anna’s is a loss that would resonate with many citizens on both side of the wall for nearly 30 years. Much of this was bad for foreign policy, but—in some senses—good for classical music. It may not have been as freewheeling as conductor Heinz Fricke insinuated to Bloomberg in 2007, but there was a considerable degree of flexibility.

Historian Toby Thacker, whose writings on classical music in the DDR include the book Music After Hitler, 1945-1955, describes the pre-Wall years of the country as “full-blooded and ideologically committed,” a time when the government was looking to create “distinctive musical attitudes and a distinctive musical culture that stood apart from the West.” This was largely unsuccessful, but it does set the country apart from its Soviet forbears in Russia (where composers like Shostakovich were continually at odds with the government).

“The German population was profoundly musical,” explains Thacker, noting that many of the established centers of German music-making—from the days of Bach and Handel up to Schumann—serendipitously fell into the East when the country was divided amongst its Allied occupants. “The support and sponsorship was unparalleled, even with extremely limited resources.”

While the Deutsche Oper Berlin was rising, phoenix-like from the ashes of 1945, the Staatsoper and Komische Oper were dominating the wild East under, respectively, Fricke and Felsenstein. Perhaps the most curious events of opera in the DDR, however, occurred long before Barbed Wire Sunday.

“One of the cultural components of nation-building was that they needed a new German national opera, something that they could claim would be definitely German but also distinctly GDR in its national identity,” explains Joy H. Calico, an expert on opera in East Germany and the author of Brecht at the Opera. Some 27 works were written between 1951 and 1961 in the DDR in hopes of attaining this mantle, with 1960 being a banner year boasting eight world premieres. All more or less met the fate of many contemporary operas, with no follow-up production, and many were produced outside of Berlin, a city that was very much on the spot and under scrutiny.

One such opera was 1951’s Die Verurteilung des Lukulus (The Condemnation of Lucullus) penned by composer Paul Dessau and librettist Bertolt Brecht. Based on Brecht’s radio play of the same name, it puts the lower classes as the jury to Roman general Lucullus’s ultimate fate: burning in Hades or lounging in the Elysian fields.

“It’s 1951, it’s just as the big purges are getting underway in the Soviet Bloc,” explains Calico. "In the GDR, there wasn’t really any bloodshed, but anyone who’s Jewish gets brought under that rubric of cosmopolitan. It’s the usual anti-Semitic rant that was coming out of Stalinist Russia.” While Brecht was not Jewish, Dessau was and Calico notes a “definite anti-Semitic undertone” to the way the composer was treated, notably in the cancelling of the premiere of Lukulus. Shown to a closed-room of invited people in October of 1951, it was then shown to the pubic six months later, purportedly with changes made to the libretti in order to please the government. Emphasis on purportedly.

“I looked at the scores,” adds Calido. “The thing they had done in October is almost verbatim as the damn thing they had done in March.”

In the end, the DDR never found its nationalist opera. But while Arthaus’s Don Giovanni was done in the west, there really is nothing like a Mozart and Da Ponte work to show the glories of Germanic music and a collectivistic, down-with-the-bourgeoisie element. Were it not for an accident of topography, this Giovanni may have been drenched with even more historic bearings.