Postcard from Germany: Berlin

After seeing six operas in a week, trying to sum up the experiences at once can be somewhat of a challange. A compositional timespan of 250 years, a myriad of production schemes, totally different opera companies and sizes – there was so much variety, and yet a few things came to mind each time. 

The apparent normalcy of opera attendance has been at the front of my mind. I’m used to heading to the Met over the 65th street bridge from Juilliard, rushing in at the last minute with a host of smartly-dressed attendees many years my senior, coming in from work. Socializing is light; the sheer size of the Met can make running to see friends somewhat of a production. Drinks are expensive, and snacks even more so (not to mention, the queues are extensive). There’s a sense of seriousness about going to the Met, unsurprisingly as it attracts some of the worlds finest singers and conductors. But it’s an atmosphere not so much of enjoyment, as constant expectancy. After heading to the Berliner Staatsoper last night, I’m convinced that opera goers are of a different species in Germany. They arrive as much as 45 minutes early to enjoy a glass of wine or a pretzel as they socialize with a host of friends or familiar faces. They dress casually. They are teenagers bringing girlfriends, parents bringing young children, middle-aged married couples, clusters of students. They are mostly educated and middle class, like a large proportion of the German population. They might gaze at the essays in the programs, but don’t necessarily discuss what they are about to see with any form of expectation or severity. They act as if this isn’t a night at the opera, but a routine. 

But in looking at all the different productions, there’s an extent to which a reinterpretation of an opera isn’t feared. I saw productions in which the staging became a dramatic biography of the composers’ lives, or some where pop references were inserted rather surreptitiously – the chorus of Vampires in Der Vampyr were dressed as pop cutlure villains (Gollum from Lord of the Rings, Snape from Harry Potter, Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, etc.) and danced using moves from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Some would argue that these are distractions or gimmicks, but seeing as my boyfriend the opera nerd didn’t pick up on the pop culture references and thought that the production was cute, I’d say the job was well done.  

But more broadly, I suppose I was impressed with the way in which a series of operas brought a host of issues to the front – as if opera was indeed art, and not artifact. Seeing as I can’t ever remember seeing a single thought-provoking production at the Met in NYC (you caught me, I’ve got it out for the Met, but I’m not alone!) – going to Germany was a breath of fresh air. While each show addressed gender, identity and even class divisions, the most striking item for me was the topic of violence. In Terry Gilliam’s production of Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust (Ok, yes, it’s technically an oratorio), Faust joins the Nazi party, but falls in love with a Jewish Marguerite. The scheme fit remarkably well on to the opera, as Faust’s supposed redemption through Mephisto’s help was at the same time Marguerite’s damnation, initially. At the end of the first half, she sings about how she wishes to be different, lighting candles and trying on a blonde mädchen’s wig – her desire to be an Aryan. The show takes you from Germany’s history, from the Franco-Prussian War, to WWI and WWII, all the way to the gates of Auschwitz where Faust attempts to retrieve Marguerite. But after his damntation, there is no apotheosis of Marguerite. She is redeemed, perhaps, but noone sees her. One only sees a pile of bodies on stages, with ashes floating down upon them. 

The discomfort at the end of Gilliam’s prodution highlighted the problem of redemption – it’s not so much that there is no redemption at the end of the opera, but that redemption comes at a price. Marguerite is spotless and memorialized, and yet we do not see her. At the same time, fascism is built upon a notion of redemptive violence; the pile of bodies represents the culmination of Nazi ideology in the destruction of European Jewry. It’s uncomfortable because Marguerite’s redemption in her death at Auschwitz is the same as that of Wehrmacht. Contrary to the ways we might want to wash our hands in thinking about the Holocaust, Gilliam’s production seemingly rejects Hannah Arendt’s or Primo Levi’s idea that there is such a thing as “meaningless violence.” Just as cause and effect aren’t separable, neither are act and intent.

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