Berlin's Operatic Rule of Three

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After the construction of the Berlin Wall, the final months of 1961 in both West and East Berlin were particularly charged.

Escape organizations in the west were tunneling across the border to shepherd refugees to freedom. A supposed plan to bomb part of the Wall on New Year’s Eve was thwarted by the untimely death of the western senator for the interior Joachim Lipschitz. And on December 10 the final Wall-related death of the year took place when a young champion diver was unable to withstand the cold of the Spree river when making a swimmer’s escape.

December 10, 2011 in Berlin, however, was less eventful. A sizable crowd crammed into the Schiller Theater on Bismarckstrasse—the temporary home of the Staatsoper as it refurbishes its Unter der Linden digs—for La Traviata. A co-production with the Aix-en-Provence Festival, the opera presented Violetta’s final dying vision as a vehicle for touches of David Lynch-like surrealism by director Peter Mussbach. It was a long evening’s journey into curtain call, performed entirely behind a scrim: Violetta resembled the feminine ideal of a latter-day Marilyn Monroe; Flora looked like Edward Scissorhands. It was, however, marked by the welcome presence of soprano Anna Samuil (who sounded warm albeit occasionally shrill when it came to the top) and an astonishing, risk-taking tenor named Francesco Demuro.

The Staatsoper, a company formerly of East Berlin, relocated to the posh Charlottenburg, just one stop on the U-bahn away from the West’s long-established Deutsche Oper. When it returns in 2013 to Unter der Linden, the city’s main classical drag, it will be in a house restored to the tune of $321 million. Outfitting the Schiller Theater, a non-operatic house, as the company’s temporary home was roughly another $30 million (as a point of reference, the renovation of the former New York State Theater was budgeted at $200 million; $107 of which was spent when the New York City Opera christened the space in 2009).

Berlin is home to three major opera companies—rounding out the trinity of the Staatsoper and Deutsche Oper is the feisty Komische Oper—which works out to approximately one company for every 1.13 million people. Even judged by the fact that Berlin was a mere quarter of a century ago two separate cities, that’s still a high quotient of culture.

When the Wall came down and the country moved towards reunification, however, the city’s ability to juggle three companies was called into question. Former dramaturg Stephan Stompor confessed to the New York Times in 1990 that he feared the Komische Oper would be the first to go as the two halves of Berlin merged and trimmed off excess fat. The Times then reported that cutting the Komische would have saved Germany roughly $15 million a year. At the time, Stompor thought it was a likely possibility that the company would be saved as a theater for non-operatic offerings or become a branch of the Deutsche Oper.

All three remain (for now, as every Berliner with whom I spoke footnoted), and all three have been able to survive the reunification by gradually diversifying. East German opera composer Siegfried Matthaus argued in the same Times article, “Why have three theaters playing 'Die Zauberflote?’… Why not turn one of them into a model laboratory for the best, most innovative productions of the opera of today?”

Radical-Lite at The Staatsoper

The weekend I spent in Berlin this month was punctuated with nightly opera. In addition to Traviata, I also took in Emmanuel Chabrier’s gem of a bouffe, L’étoile, performed by the Staatsoper with Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as King Ouf, Magdalena Kožená as Lazuli and her husband, Sir Simon Rattle, leading from the pit. The Staatsoper boasts a high pedigree thanks to music director Daniel Barenboim (continuing a lineage that also includes Erich Kleiber, Herbert von Karajan, Richard Strauss and Giacomo Meyerbeer) and an original home that looks like a traditional, neo-Baroque temple to the arts.  

The Staatsoper’s L’étoile was non-traditional-lite, offbeat in its own way for a local opera scene whose new productions are more along the lines of Mussbach or the reigning monarch of regietheater (director's theater), Calixto Bieito. American baritone Dale Duesing helmed the work, setting it in a sleek and effortlessly chic hotel with costumes that bounce between the Mad-Men–esque 1960s and Justin-Timberlake–ish 2010s. In terms of the intersection between iconoclastic yet wholly satisfying performances, it’s perhaps on par with Patrice Chéreau’s mercurial From the House of the Dead, which also docked at the Staatsoper this season (and played at the Met in 2009). It’s by no means weird, but it’s no less winning, especially for the season and with such a top-shelf cast.

Beguiling Mozart at the Deutsche Oper

In some ways, the Staatsoper sits as an intermediary between the western Deutsche Oper and the über-radical Komische Oper. More traditional, the Deutsche Oper is a boxy, no-frills affair with singers to rival the Staatsoper’s roster. Nearly four miles away in a similarly boxy theater, the Komische Oper worships at the altar of the wondrously strange with casts that are generally lesser-known entities but with a considerable vocal heft.

And yet, for a weekend this year the roles were seemingly switched. The Deutsche Oper's production of Don Giovanni, directed by Roland Schwab was a far cry from the production of the same opera that opened the house on Bismarckstrasse in 1961 (just weeks after the Wall went up). Though the production was overwhelmingly controversial upon its premiere last fall particularly at a time when the company's orchestra was on strike over low wages, I found the concept at times flawed but ultimately beguiling and incisive.

Let’s set aside the Act I finale with half-naked, robo-models strutting a catwalk and a gent dressed up as Jesus (crown of thorns and all) riding an exercise bike: The course that Schwab steers to the Don’s ultimate demise calls to mind an interesting, if perhaps anachronistic thought: What if all of these other characters are simply figments of the Don’s imagination? The case may not have always been made, but I was wired enough to the stage to be simultaneously satisfied and craving more at the end, rethinking the familiar work in a new light (which could not be said for the Met’s current production). The duo of Tobias Kehrer and Heidi Stober as Masetto and Zerlina were especially winning, and baritone Mark Stone was perfect not only in the role but also in this particular production, throwing himself completely into Schwab’s vision and not coming up for air until curtain call.

While this particular Don Giovanni doesn’t look bound for DVD, the archival performances from the Deutsche Oper combined with the current works being issued on DVD by Berlin-based Arthaus Musik (most recently, the company’s Die Liebe der Danae) show a company that has grown and fluctuated over time, responding to trends and progressing rather steadily in terms of artistic vision—all very westernized ideals in comparison to the more unchanging face of the east.

 Playing with Tradition at Komische Opera

On the other end of the spectrum, the Komische Oper offered a Die Fledermaus that, on the surface, seemed quite tame. This is the same theater where audience members called for the death of Bieito after his Die Entführung aus dem Serail, a theater that doesn’t hold back when it comes to the sublimely weird. There was a similar veneer of tradition when the company was under the direction of founder Walter Felsenstein (the house opened in 1947, also with Fledermaus).  When this production opened in 2007, the Berliner Zeitung wrote that “the most interesting part of the…production…is the program booklet.” At first glance, it seems unassuming: A heavily-raked stage full of cabinets, Eisenstein’s house in disarray, which gives way to a party full of corsets and bustles, a toppled chandelier and a prison scene that still utilizes the first act’s set.

But intendant and director Andreas Homoki takes the crux of Fledermaus—a cast of characters pretending to be people they’re not—and amplifies it. Even Prince Orlofsky is originally a woman plucked from the second-act party and changed onstage into an Onegin-like royal. Homoki gets meta with the concept, painting the Komische Oper as a house (with the plushest and most opulent interiors compared to the Schiller and Deutsche Oper) of pure, unadulterated tradition. And that’s part of the ploy.

Where the Komische didn’t play around was with the voices, including Alexandra Reinprecht as a sumptuous last-minute switch for Rosalinde, Christiane Oertel as Orlosky, Tom Erik Lie as Eisenstein and Christoph Späth as Alfred. In true Felsensteinian tradition, they worked naturally and without ambiguities or abstractions in their performances. Jesus, and his exercise bike, stayed home—but they’ll surely rise again.