September 2004

Sex in the City

An insider's view of Bieito's Entführung aus dem Serail

Partner Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

Sex in the City

An insider's view of Bieito's Entführung aus dem Serail

by Lydia Steier

"Eine Schande," clucked one man, head slowly shaking at a table full of chorus members and technicians in the crowded, yellow-walled cafeteria of Berlin's Komische Oper. Several others nodded their agreement. A disgrace. "Such a thing does not deserve to be seen on our stage…on any stage." "I always bring my grandchildren to the opera…not this time." "It's an insult to the very soul of opera." These were rare comments in that particular house, which has steadfastly chosen crowd-pleasing fare performed in German only, in the "people's opera" tradition laid down by the legendary director Walter Felsenstein in the fifties, and protected until 2002 by the still-venerated operatic giant, Harry Kupfer. This very tradition had allowed the Komische Oper to keep its budgetary head respectably above the swirling sands of the viscous, malodorous quagmire that Berlin's cultural subsidy mandate has become.

On this particular evening, glasses of pilsner seemed to disappear faster then usual from beneath the frowns of vague disgust littering the Kantine. And the "disgrace" in question had yet to even open. By the time the last occupant of that sullen table grabbed his coat and said his goodbyes, I had come to inherit five extra tickets to the following morning's dress rehearsal, typically earmarked for the friends and family of opera employees.

Concurrent to this lachrymose, post-penultimate rehearsal display, a major meeting between the cast, directing team and upper administration of the Komische Oper was occurring in the Kantine's anteroom. As I prepared to leave the opera shortly before midnight, bass Jens Larsen, designer Alfons Flores and director Calixto Bieito burst out of the conference and made for the exit.

"They cut the pissing scene," said Flores, in heavily accented English.

"Which one?" I asked, receiving only a defeated shrug in response.

The air around these three men reeked of helplessness. The day had brought a near-mutiny from the orchestra, resulting in a long and bruising meeting between the house's instrumentalists and Bieito himself, mediated by the opera's conductor and company musical director Kirill Petrenko. Members of the orchestra found the production's newly written, Tarantino-esque dialogue so objectionable as to consider walking out during the week's rehearsals. Staff members of the house casually observing the night's piano-tech had stormed out in protest. A muted, yet palpable and ever present battle had been raging for days between Petrenko, director of opera Per Boye Hansen, Bieito and his steadfast advocate Andreas Homoki, the opera's artistic director.

As we left the opera house that evening, I asked Bieito how he was holding up under so much pressure. In responding, the Barcelonan looked uncharacteristically pale, his eyes unusually dull while his lips curled into a grin: "My ideas are strong, but my heart is weak."

Calixto Bieito

With the next morning's public dress rehearsal, Calixto Bieito's production of Mozart's Entführung aus dem Serail rose to instant infamy, becoming the biggest scandal to strike Berlin's insular opera scene since German reunification, and arguably since several decades prior. What began as a battle over taste and tradition exploded into a controversy encompassing media, public and private money, the legacy and future of Berlin's entire cultural mechanism, and the role and purpose of opera as an art form. The venerable conservative daily newspaper Die Welt dubbed it "the most important production of the year."

Traditionally in Germany, Entführung aus dem Serail joins Die Zauberflöte as a Singspiel commonly used to initiate children into the world of opera. With its ultra-simplistic story and cartoon-exotic themes and characters, Entführung is far less complex than the later Mozart/Da Ponte masterpieces, and more accessible than Idomeneo, La Clemenza di Tito, and the composer's earlier opere serie. The Staatsoper's repertory production by the Baghdad-born Israeli director David Mouchtar Samorai, for instance, follows the dreamy, quasi-exotic presentation mold traditionally expected of this work, and is generally well attended by young people and families.

Bieito's Entführung not only shattered this fairy-tale mold, but ground it into a powder, put it into Ziploc bags and sold it as a party drug. Setting the piece in a glittery, violent, vaguely eastern European whorehouse, peppered with guns, drugs, and all varieties of bodily fluid and physical assault, Bieito cut through any sentimental membrane protecting the opera from the stomach-churning brutality of such modern phenomena as human trafficking and snuff-films. In addition to the unswervingly committed cast, the Komische Oper hired 15 professional adult entertainers to fill out the sordid aesthetic texture of Bieito's vision.

The impact of this vision was loudly apparent early on. The dress rehearsal audience chuckled or groaned politely while Osmin (played by an amply built Jens Larsen, Bieito's most adamant advocate within the cast) jumped about nude on a bed during the character's initial duet, and when Pedrillo stuffed Belmonte into a tight vinyl dress during "Oh wie ängstlich." That stated, it should certainly be noted that nudity and cross-dressing have come to be standard fare on all Berlin stages. Bassa Selim's conspicuous digital violation of Konstanze (a clarion-voiced Maria Bengtsson) during "Ich liebte, war so glücklich" inspired little more than uncomfortable shifting.

After "Ich liebte," Selim carried a spread-eagled Konstanze about the stage, threatening her with all manner of torments should she fail to love him by the following day, then dropped her on the ground, and climbed into a cubic glass "boudoir" at the center of the set's revolve. There, Selim tugged down the underpants of the prostitute waiting inside, threw her on the bed, dropped his trousers to his knees, put her feet on his shoulders and, facing upstage, began to thrust violently.

This marked the end of tacit disapproval. A loud, clear female voice came first "Tasteless! Cut that out!" This was followed by an assortment of disgusted condemnations and counter-hollers from those resenting the disturbance. This remained the audience's most reserved outburst of the performance.

The audience at the dress rehearsal also bears mentioning. Run by the Komische Oper's Förderkreis (Friends), this first public offering of a new production is populated by private donors and all varieties of related family, friends and colleagues, as well as retired and current company members and their guests. Normally an enthusiastic and supportive public, dress rehearsals at the Komische Oper have previously produced a deceptively positive first response to relative box office flops, including the four previous premieres of the Komische Oper's 2003-2004 season. By 10:30 a.m., one half hour into the dress rehearsal, several distinguished members of this guest audience could be seen in the Kantine drinking schnapps in stunned silence.

By far the most controversial moment in Bieito's Entführung occurs during Konstanze's show aria, "Marten aller Arten". While the freshly beaten protagonist is held immobile by Selim, she is forced to watch as Osmin coerces a leggy pink-wigged prostitute into giving him oral sex, after which he gags her, pins her to the ground and very graphically (kudos to the properties department) cuts her to death. By the time Osmin handed the bleeding nipple of the just-killed whore to a retching Konstanze, the orchestra had already been inaudible for several minutes under the screaming, booing and stomping of the irate public. Doors slammed, programs sailed through the air, people stood to threaten those wailing condemnations contradicting their own. Gunbert Warns, in the character of Selim, took particular pleasure in inflaming the audience's indignation. In his short monologue following "Marten aller Arten", Warns improvised loudly and lewdly, encouraging over three minutes of crowd bellowing. The completion of the scene made impossible, Konstanze and Selim exited mid-text. The artistic administration of the house decided to omit the previously planned intermission-a logical move to prevent public exodus.

Jens Larsen

Such impassioned outbursts strafed the remainder of the public dress. By the time the shell-shocked cast came from wardrobe, they were confronted with the morning's press carefully posted by the Komische Oper's P.R. department only after the rehearsal began. Some of the photographers the opera hired to follow earlier stage rehearsals had sold their juicier shots to Berlin's tabloids. One of them, Bild, had an enormous color photo of Jens Larsen as Osmin, streams of stage urine sprayed from between a prostitute's legs streaking down his exultant face. "Ekel-Kunst mit Steuergeld," read the headline. Disgusting art with taxpayers' money. Mr. Larsen stared blankly at the image for several minutes.

"I think I need to talk to my children," he said, sighing heavily before turning and walking away.

It was Friday afternoon. The premiere was Sunday evening at seven. The dress rehearsal was a very bad sign for a very troubled opera house at a very difficult time in a city in dire financial straits. Still, somehow, the mood at the Komische Oper reflected a nihilistic giddiness - in addition to wide-eyed terror.

Berlin's budgetary crisis is well known and widely documented. Halted construction and half-renovated buildings mark the city like a series of open wounds. Regular protests against social reform and rising education costs punctuate all aspects of daily life. Unemployment in some areas of the capital has ballooned to 20% and higher. This crunch has been acutely felt in Berlin's cultural landscape, in the form of shrinking budgets and attempts to streamline the deployment of personnel resources.

For years, Berlin's near-bankruptcy raised the constant threat of the elimination of one of Berlin's three opera houses, an extravagant number for any one city, regardless of size. In only a few short years, it became clear that the city government simply could not sustain three companies, each with its own orchestra, core ensemble, adult and children's chorus, ballet, technical staff and construction facilities. While debate has raged as to which of the three should get the ax, each house has mounted an equally rigorous effort to secure major corporate sponsors to enhance prestige and lessen budgetary pressure. In accordance to a current "stay of execution" scheme, the ballet companies of the Staatsoper and Deutsche Oper have merged, while the Komische Oper's innovative modern company, the Berlin Ballett, has been dissolved completely. The K.O. has also all but eliminated its platform for young artists and directors, the Studio Series, and, in an effort to bulk up its ever-thinning public, gone through four different marketing directors in eighteen months.

The premiere previous to Entführung at the Komische Oper was Richard Jones's Wozzeck in April of 2004. An inspired rethinking of the story from the traditional military to a kitschy-industrial context received critical plaudits, yet sank into the unfortunate pattern of ticket sales that has plagued the company since Andreas Homoki was named Harry Kupfer's replacement as Director of Opera in 2002 (he has since signed a five-year contract to succeed Albert Kost as Artistic Director, with Per Boye Hansen taking over his former position). Apart from only one really notable success in these last two seasons, (Peter Konwitschny's Don Giovanni in early 2003), the K.O. had somehow managed to produce a string of lukewarmly received premieres, the public for which invariably hung around or below half-house capacity after the second performance. The directors connected to these productions are widely recognized as the foie gras on Europe's operatic buffet: David Alden, Barrie Kosky, Willy Decker, and Homoki himself. This, in combination with unfalteringly dismal audiences for the Berlin Ballett and Komische Oper symphonic concerts, made house veterans throw up their hands in cynical defeat, especially because the house's only regularly packed productions were throwbacks from Harry Kupfer's iron reign at the company. As a result, there is currently resentment within the house itself for Homoki's policy over these past seasons of phasing out wildly successful Kupfer productions like Don Giovanni and Figaros Hochzeit and replacing them with those of more controversial directors. The name "Kupfer" is spoken at the Komische Oper much the way "Clinton" is mentioned to recall the good old days among American liberals.

By the time Bieito blew through the stage door sans entourage the night of June 20th (twenty minutes before the premiere-his plane had been delayed in Spain due to a bomb threat), the press case had exploded upward and outward, becoming the press wall. Images from the week's stage rehearsals had been smeared across the pages of local and national publications of varying integrity from the time of the dress rehearsal. My "toi toi toi" (break-a-leg greeting) to Bieito and, indeed those exchanged between all others in the house bore the unsettling subtext of "I'm glad to have known you." Still, with a glint in his eye, and an uncommon sense of "boo-lust", Bieito headed into the Kantine where, oddly enough, the incensed and indignant members of the Förderkreis (yes, from the dress rehearsal) had already been sipping prosecco for the last hour.

The new Entführung aus dem Serail hit Berlin's cultural landscape like a ton of bricks. After days of constant media coverage, the public's hunger for the event had become insatiable, and people of all ages crowded the house's front stairs waving bills and holding signs reading "Suche nur 1 Karte…dringend!" (Seeking just one ticket, urgent!) A robust counter-lobby had organized to wage brutal verbal warfare with those screaming "Filth, filth!" "Mozart didn't intend this!" and "Shame on this house!" One had the distinct impression of witnessing some bleeding death-battle in a Roman coliseum. And there was certainly blood-at least on stage.

Through the scandal surrounding the opera due to the ultra-graphic sex and violence on stage and the splattery kung-fu-silly Quentin Tarantino-esque massacre perpetrated upon Selim's sex slaves after Pedrillo's act III romanza, the eloquence of Bieito's theatrical reconception was overlooked. After so much unspeakable cruelty, Selim holds a gun against the squealing, blindfolded head of Finnur Bjarnason's splendidly sung Belmonte, cocks the hammer, then thinks better of killing him. In a heartbreaking moment, he unchains Konstanze, hands her the gun and repeats "I love you", until interrupted by a bullet to the chest from his beautiful captive, who then frees the hysterical hero. After Belmonte recovers from his ordeal, he surveys the shattered, bleeding ruins of Selim's fallen empire. Seizing the obvious opportunity, the battered, exhausted audience witnesses Belmonte's unsettlingly smooth transition into power: the dauphin rising to kingly pimpdom, Pedrillo easily sliding into Osmin's recently vacated position as strong-arm.

Maria Bengtsson

While the chorus sings an ironic "Bassa Selim, lebe lange", Konstanze, maddened by disillusionment, picks up the weapon that dispatched of her abductor, and wanders toward center stage unnoticed by her grandstanding prince-charming-cum-mafia-kingpin. Those audience members who hadn't whipped themselves into a morally indignant fury over the course of the evening were extraordinarily moved by the wrenching image of Konstanze slowly and gingerly sitting herself down on the stage's edge, sore from the night's events and crushed by the bitter rewards of her loyalty. Maria Bengtsson's clear blue eyes and lovely face seemed to register something resembling hope as she pressed the gun underneath her sternum. The opera ends with a gunshot.

The tidal wave of boos that followed was expected. The television crews were not. The very second the stage went black, rows of bright lights mounted on a bewildering array of television cameras trained their crisscrossing beams on the wildly animated audience. This image would accompany the main story on all of Berlin/Brandenburg's television networks, and indeed many others across Germany and Europe. Reporters chased down members of the well-to-do premiere set as they left the main gallery, carefully seeking out those with the surliest expressions and most expensive suits. The spider-web of microphone cables impeded the public's movement, contributing to the evening's chaotic atmosphere.

The circus-like electricity generated by this controversy made for one of the best premiere parties in recent memory. Sheepishly grinning politicians and bastions of Berlin's old money brushed various body parts with taut, tanned adult-entertainers-cum-divas. Photos of the city's corporate and political heavyweights in the same frame as leggy go-go dancers graced the next morning's papers. A large contingent of the city's performance intelligentsia and art set (who normally wouldn't be dragged to the Komische Oper by wild horses-even those suspended in formaldehyde à la Damien Hirst) attended the premiere and party, celebrating the house's unexpected inclusion into Berlin's diadem of hot, socially immediate performance venues, next to Frank Castorf's Volksbühne, the Hebbel am Ufer complex and Sophiensaele. Even the dispassionate chorus members who'd only three nights previous lamented the irrevocable demise of the legacies of Walter Felsenstein and Harry Kupfer wandered grinning and staring through the packed foyer, shaking their heads in disbelief. The singers beamed, toasting one another, basking in their momentary celebrity. Calixto Bieito and Andreas Homoki were shuttled from interview to interview until late into the night.

"I want to provoke the emotions of an audience." Bieito told the press. "It's important, when one goes to an opera, concert, or to the theater, to feel something-to be moved and continue thinking about it-that is important." The Catalan director added "At home in Spain I still always hear that people love to go to the opera and close their eyes, so as only to hear the music-but that isn't opera!"

One member of the audience, who would perhaps have done better to close his eyes, proved to have been especially provoked. An irate Matthias Kleinert, one of seven corporate curators of the Förderkreis (and sponsoring counsel to Daimler Chrysler CEO Jürgen Schrempp) told several reporters after the opera that "…when the prostitute was massacred on the stage, I had to leave." He was quoted in Berlin's Bild tabloid as saying "This entire presentation of sex and violence was completely unacceptable to me." Such comments were relatively unremarkable in this context, as Kleinert was certainly not the only titan of industry expressing bile and disbelief to the media that evening. Jaws dropped, however, when Mr. Kleinert told the Berliner Zeitung that he intended to advise his superiors at Daimler Chrysler to seriously reconsider a continuance of the yearly 20,000 Euro contributed to the opera house by the auto giant. Indeed, he went so far as to say that his colleagues at D-C and the Förderkreis in general could "…not to be expected to support such events."

The loss of Euro 20,000 a year did not appear on the surface to pose any sort of crippling blow to the opera house's operational budget. Symbolically, however, it was a stinging insult, dealt by an influential member of a group upon which the Komische Oper has consistently relied. The Förderkreis provides a total of Euro 250,000 annually, the absence of which would hobble the smallest of Berlin's opera companies.

Andreas Homoki

It is in just these situations that artistic director Andreas Homoki tends to shine. Unmerciful and unwavering in the last two years in his scorched earth policy toward the tenacious legacy of Harry Kupfer, he has deftly dodged the numerous darts of public scorn over several decidedly "new art" strategies, including singles parties, an upcoming film series, and, of course, engaging directors like Bieito. A wily operatic double-O-seven, the handsome, ever black-clad figure appeared resigned, just a bit injured and firmly perched on moral high ground when interviewed by the Berliner Morgenpost: "[it's] legitimate and upfront of a member (of the Friends of the Komische Oper) to withdraw if he no longer identifies with the theater." He went on to slyly assert that "most members are of the opinion that the [organization's] mandate is, before anything else, to enable art-not to occupy itself as a censor." Even as some forty members of the Förderkreis withdrew from the organization to the apparent chagrin of the opera to avoid being classified in either category of this classic Homoki barb, the company's press department and upper administration worked hard to dominate, and therefore control, the continuing public fascination with the near-auto-da-fé known as Die Entführung.

As the Komische Oper eloquently and humbly blasted the audacity of private donors to assume the mantle of cultural-moral arbiter, it demonstrated considerable skill in beatifying the artistic goals of the company in presenting such a work, as well as practically deifying the role of Berlin's cultural mechanism (read: hefty government subsidies). Homoki offered, "The Komische Oper has always been dedicated to showing realistic musical theater and that's what we've done here…it's up for discussion and I'm glad to see it's being discussed so passionately." And again in vintage form, "the problem with sponsoring is that the companies involved like to use the arts they're funding as an image booster." But, he insists, "…the German theater system is an expression of a free society in which uncomfortable art occupies a necessary place."

Kleinert's initial attack and Homoki's smooth rebuttals raised the status of the Entführung debacle to a level of serious political/philosophical debate on the purpose and status of art in a society. Tabloid headlines such as "Sex-scandal in the Komische Oper" were replaced by titles like "Corporate Culture, Taste and Censorship". Critics across Europe, often from countries also experiencing diminishing government subsidies for the arts, ruminated seriously over the ramifications of a system where the personal peccadilloes of a privileged few could influence the future of a cultural institution like the Komische Oper. In addition to journalists and critics, academics and politicians joined the debate, the most notable members of the latter category being Berlin's senator for culture, Thomas Flierl, and Christina Weiss, the German minister of culture-ultimately responsible for the state of the current opera reforms in Berlin. Both acknowledged the controversial nature of the production at hand, and indeed the Komische Oper's choice to engage Calixto Bieito (whose Il Trovatore staging in Hanover instigated the loss of 4000 ticket subscribers, to the ruin of artistic director Albrecht Puhlmann). They also were eager, in interviews and articles, to distance themselves from Kleinert's position, Flierl asserting that "the description of blood, sex and violence is a true reflection of social phenomena." Cultural luminaries, and indeed Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit and Wolfgang Thierse, President of the German Bundestag, stressed the importance if not the need for bold, controversial art to continue receiving public support. This support, they noted, has despite a bewildering array of corner-cutting measures allowed Berlin to remain one of the world's great centers of progressive art and performance.

All shameless Schadenfreude enthusiasts, expecting Daimler-Chrysler to be the first in a falling row of dominoes in withdrawing support from the Komische Oper (hastening its demise in Berlin's larger operatic conundrum), were certainly disappointed when the auto giant's CEO, Jürgen Schrempp, publicly announced that Daimler-Chrysler had no plans to alter its yearly contribution to the opera company. This announcement came only days after the now-fabled premiere. The original comment had been made in haste, and did not reflect the overall philosophy behind Daimler-Chrysler's policy for cultural sponsoring.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail also went on to be a runaway commercial success for the Komische Oper, to the molar-grinding chagrin of those eagerly expecting a vicious backlash against the company. Vaulting past the "post-second-show" hurdle, the production's third performance was delayed for a quarter-of-an-hour in order to attempt to accommodate the ticket line snaking around the block. The remaining performances in the 2003-2004 season sold out completely, with the next season's offerings selling more rapidly than the upcoming 2004-2005 premieres.

In order to populate a success of this magnitude, it stands to figure that audiences typically foreign to the house and, indeed, opera in general would begin visiting in droves. Whether entirely or negligibly as a result of the initial firestorm, an opulent variety of tattoos, piercings and hemp accessories were paraded through the elegant halls of the opera on the persons of young artists and performers of every ilk, in addition to graphic designers, medical and legal students, media agents, journalists-Berlin's cool and young intellectual class, which has traditionally been conspicuously absent from the city's opera audiences. "Have you seen the Entführung yet?" became the one question in every conversation at water coolers, dinner parties, train platforms, sandwich lines, and street corners all around Berlin in the summer of 2004.

I was asked that very question one Sunday in early July as I meandered through a flea market in the ultra-gentrified Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. The man who posed the question is a neurology resident at Berlin's Charité hospital and, as far as I know, not an opera-goer.

"Have you seen the Entführung yet?"

"No." I replied. "But I hear it's crazy."

He smiled and shrugged. "There's that, sure, but the music…you've GOT to hear the music!"