domingo, noviembre 01, 2009

Opera in Berlin (I), a challenge to tradition

I first visited Berlin in 1964, when the Wall separated East from West, and at that time I saw "The Marriage of Figaro" at the Deutsche Oper (West) and "Don Pasquale" at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (East). I was back in August 1989, some months after the Wall fell down, but it was summer and there was no opera. This year I made my trip in late September, just a few days after the beginning of the operatic season, and I was able to attend at the unified Berlin a total of four operas, two each at the Deutsche and at the Staatsoper.

The aim of this article isn´t political, but I can´t avoid the fact that I experienced three different Berlins: in 1964 an isolated but brilliant West and a rundown East; in 1989 the start of the transition to unity, when the scars of the past remained very visible in the East; and now a marvelously vital unified Berlin where you almost see no difference between both sides; twenty years later I felt a glamorous, beautiful, green and open city exempt from traffic jams, vital, disciplined, cosmopolitan and admirable.

The operatic structure remains amazingly like it was in 1964: the two great opera houses I mentioned were already there, as was the Komische Oper, successor to Klemperer´s 1920s Kroll Oper, smaller and always associated with both the avant-garde and its apparent contradiction, operetta. I couldn´t go there, alas, for it would have completed my overview. But some general conclusions can be made anyway. First, the city maintains three fulltime opera houses, and controversy has raged over its impact on the budget, especially now that Berlin, notwithstanding its fine image, totters under a very heavy deficit. One of them, many say, would have to go; if one of them has to be sacrificed, I wouldn´t condemn the two main houses but the Komische. However, it would be wonderful if they kept having three. But, truth to tell, it´s the only city in the world that does that: two yes (London, New York, Paris, Vienna, Munich), but three…There´s a second factor: Vienna, e.g., has two very contrasting ones (Staatsoper and Volksoper) but both the Deutsche and the Staatsoper in Berlin tread the same ground, which puts them in very direct rivalry (the feud some years ago between Barenboim at the Staatsoper and Thielemann at the Deutsche ended with the departure of the latter, both battling for a greater share of the Berlin Senate´s subsidy).

There´s another very important matter: the colossal amount of opera available. For these theaters are all repertoire houses, not "stagione" like La Scala or the Colón, This means that they have a steady core of no less than about thirty operas (or at the Komische also operettas) but others vary each year; I haven´t counted them, but I´m probably right if I state that each year a Berliner can see between 500 and 600 performances of opera of roughly about a hundred titles, perhaps even more. Of course there´s now a steady touristic input, but this wan´t so in 1964 and there were audiences for roughly the same amount of performances. "Repertoire" also means that they have house singers under yearly contract, but the two bigger houses have many guests (singers, producers, conductors).

I came out of my experience with two opposed impressions: on one side, a hearty respect for the musical quality exhibited (especially the orchestras) and for the well-oiled daily functioning presenting big, difficult and diverse operas night after night: a phenomenal capacity for efficient professional work. On the other, dismay at the aesthetics of the productions, which –as implied in the title of this article- dislodge tradition to such a degree that I felt they are ruining their own culture. This has been going on with increasing strength during the last two decades, and for those who like me believe in maintaining our roots, it´s so discomfiting that I left every night with a bitter taste in my mouth.

The crux of the matter is this: producers feel they have to offer "their" vision of the opera, with no regard to the original contents of the libretti; they think they are co-authors, not interpreters, and that only an extreme avant-garde view will do. Most of the time I couldn´t have told which opera I was viewing by the looks of it, that´s how distorted they were. It´s a curious schizophrenia: libretti and music are left untouched, but anything can go on stage; many call them "concept" productions, which means to have a wholly arbitrary view of the original. The sad thing is that public money and management support such travesties, and so do many critics. It is, I´m afraid, a losing battle to denounce this situation and hope that it will change. It seems to be the "Zeitgeist", the spirit of our time; I can only call it "extreme decay" and say that they give the young terrible models. Certainly they haven´t seen Strauss or Wagner but what the producer imposes on them. Thirty or forty years ago I came out of an opera performance in Germany with a degree of pleasure that has simply disappeared now. In a couple of weeks I will give details of what for me was good and bad in operatic Berlin.

For Buenos Aires Herald