Is Bigger Really Better?

Berlin's indie opera companies come out in full force
October 20, 2004
Saalbau Neukölln




Berliner Kammeroper e.V.
Musikalische Leitung: Peter Aderhold
Inszenierung: Kay Kuntze
Bühne, Kostüme: Duncan Hayler
October 24, 2004
Komische Oper Berlin


Hans Zender
Don Quijote de la Mancha


Zeitgenössische Oper Berlin
Komische Oper Berlin
Musikalische Leitung: Rüdiger Bohn
Inszenierung: Sabrina Hölzer
Ausstattung: Mirella Weingarten
Lichtgestaltung : Jeannot Bessière
Klangregie : Daniel Weingarten, Horst Reile, Christoph Schulte

Don Quijote : Tom Sol
Sancho Panza : Mark Bowman-Hester
Dame I, Dulcinea I, Nichte : Ksenija Lukic
Dame III, Dulcinea III, Haushälterin : Maria Kowollik
Dame II, Dulcinea II, Nachbarin : Franziska Gottwald
Lektor I, Barbier I, Häscher I : Patrick Busert
Cardenio, Küster, Häscher IV : Lothar Odinius
Lektor II, Schweinehirt, Verwalter, Häscher III : Jonathan de la Paz Zaens
Wirt, Pfarrer, Der Chef : Nicholas Isherwood
Don Quijote II, Don Fernando, Notar : Gavin Taylor
Lektor III, Häscher II, Nachbar : Christoph Kögel
Don Quijote III, Beine des Wirtes und der Dulcinea : Daniel Yamada

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

Is Bigger Really Better?

Berlin's indie opera companies come out in full force

by Lydia Steier

The big three operas in Berlin aren't the only ones putting their figurative eggs into very competitive baskets this fall. Two of Berlin's main three independently producing opera companies recently had premieres within four days of each other. The third, Alexander Paeffgen's Neue Opernbühne, has been on hiatus since its Amadigi di Gaula of last October. Kay Kuntze's Berliner Kammeroper presented the first of four performances of Shih's Vatermord at the Saalbau Neukölln on October 20th, while the Zeitgenössische Oper, the most lavishly funded of the three, premiered Hans Zender's Don Quijote de la Mancha as a co-production with the Komische Oper on the house's mainstage Sunday, October 24th. Both KO Intendant Andreas Homoki and the ZO's Andreas Rochholl spoke after the premiere in the traditional address of thanks and congratulation.

Both Vatermord and Don Quijote were written virtually concurrently (with premieres in 1994 and 1993, respectively)…the former skewing toward the style of Mauricio Kagel in its exploration of tone "picturization" and texture, while the latter derives influence more from Karlheinz Stockhausen and George Crumb, using amplification and digital distortion as a natural part of orchestration. Both styles offer a very tempting sample of the possible future course of the operatic form.

Directing an ultra-modern opera can be quite difficult, especially if widely released recordings are not readily is the case for both works. Kay Kuntze and Sabrina Hölzer (directors of Vatermord and Don Quijote respectively) rose to the task admirably. Their set design concepts are nearly comically similar…both comprising a scaffold of four levels, subdivided into vertical striations by pipes or bars.

For pure storytelling, a spectator would have been happier in the noisy seats of the Saalbau Neukölln. Vatermord tells the brutal story of a young man, Walther, who is mistreated (humiliated and tortured) by his monstrous father, while his sadist-in-waiting brother often watches. Constantly fantasizing about freedom and nature (as symbolized in projections of flying birds and rolling clouds), he is kept as prisoner in his house, sometimes in dark closets strapped to a chair, with only his terrified, yet loving mother as a companion. The situation for Walther and his mother becomes so futile and isolated, that they fall into an erotic embrace, which is interrupted by the ogre-like figure of the father-at which point Walther stabs him to death, claiming his long-awaited freedom.

It should be said that I divined this story without having understood more than a few words from any singer in the production. The theater does not flatter the human voice. Still, it is due to the strength of Kuntze's stage pictures that the story of Vatermord seemed so lucid. By very clearly establishing each level as "belonging" to one particular character, one could identify the ownership of the tension created in each scene. For example, every time the lights illuminated the lowest level, it created an uncomfortable anticipation of the father's impending involvement. The first evidence of the eventual seduction occurred on the "mother" level-making her control much clearer. The "consummation" occurred on the "Walther" level, in a moment of breathtaking poignancy and guilty hotness. Stunning moments of echoed movement were to be found throughout the piece, through the use of cleverly set revolving "doors" and ladders built at angles. Lighting was stark, industrial, and very effective. Even the straight-from-Death-of-a-Salesman costumes seemed strangely perfect for this cold, prickly world.

As an audience member watching the acting on stage, occasionally one wanted for a moment to breathe. It's difficult to say whether this is a weakness in the structure of the opera (written in nine unbroken episodes), or in this particular production. In works that deal with similar subjects, moments of lightness are inserted to create contrast with the brutality of darker moments. A good example of this is the very opening of Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium, where Baba's drunken, sullen entrance is preceded by a scene where Toby and Monica are playing dress-up. In Vatermord, simpler, more reserved scenes (especially those involving the mother) were much more effective that bits of stage action that were very clearly supposed to elicit shock. The physical violence on stage seemed slightly clumsy, and eventually one realized that Walther would end up on the floor approximately half a minute after the beginning of any scene with the father. The level of acting was extremely high, particularly that of Regina Jacobi in the role of the mother, Hans Gröning as the brother and often Walther. Tim Severloh, playing the latter, was more powerful when directed not to react, like in a scene when Walther's brother tears up his drawings of birds (dreams of freedom). During beatings, a more stoic response to the situation might have been more moving. Still, with all involved, this level of singing while acting (and vice versa) was really very extraordinary.

The singing itself was certainly satisfactory across the board. Standout moments included any of the mother's solitary laments, and any time Mr. Severloh sang of his desires to grasp the freedom of nature. For a countertenor, the role of Walther is rather anti-idiomatically written. Vatermord often requires the singer in this role to hover around the lower break (which tends to skew inaudible unless a singer switches to chest register) or hang on soprano notes not generally expected from an operatic altist (these have a tendency to sound shrill, and defy attempts at line shaping). Mr. Severloh handled these challenges admirably, particularly the latter category. His voice blossomed most appealingly during duet singing with Ms. Jacobi. These scenes in general, both vocally and dramatically, forced audiences to the edges of their seats.

After seeing the cold blue cyclorama, straight symmetrical lines, formal reductions of Victorian dress, and choreographic bodily and facial gestures used in the Zeitgenössische Oper's Don Quijote de la Mancha, one name came to mind: Robert Wilson. Who can say if it's conscious or not, but at times, Sabrina Hölzer's staging looked like an exercise in visual quotation. Even so, one can certainly appreciate the cold, clean, formal beauty of the pictures on stage. Spectators should read a quick synopsis of the original Cervantes before heading to the Komische Oper for this production. If one can recognize specific moments from the book in the onstage action, one can appreciate the cleverness with which many gestures and tableaus are structured. Without this familiarity, the stage pictures will certainly prove compelling, however unconstructive in narrating a cohesive story.

Regardless of influence, Hölzer's eye for form is wonderful. Her use of Mirella Weingarten's minimal design is often very engaging. The ability of this cast to carry out complicated choreographic patterns is also noteworthy. Still, one became frustrated at the end of each, coolly striking scene when, after the lights went dark, the figures of the cast could be seen scrambling (while glowing with the help of white costumes and blacklights) into their next positions.

Don Quijote de la Mancha: zum Vergrößern klicken / click to enlarge

The real triumph of the Zeitgenössische Oper Don Quijote de la Mancha is the music. Much in the way that hearing a small army of singers trained in French baroque style under the baton of William Christie is a singular delight, so too is the sight of eleven singers who specialize in contemporary music, performing with an orchestra of such an advanced level, under the masterful leadership of Rüdiger Bohn. The Komische Oper main hall, which sounds like a carpeted closet to the singers on stage, responds beautifully to the nuance of this type of music, both instrumental and vocal. Additionally, a sound design team coordinated with Mr. Bohn to create striking live delays and distortions of the orchestra, in addition to mixing several pre-recorded vocal "bands", over and with which performers sang live. Zender's score included a positively electric use of Sprechstimme, written with complete precision in terms of inflection and tone. Additionally, many items of choreography (clapping, waving, bowing, falling) are called for explicitly, in rhythm, in the score. Zender himself attended several rehearsals in the last week before the premiere, arguing particulars of stage business!

While it's difficult to pick out the highlights of this rarely gifted cast, Tom Sol is an absolute delight as Don Quixote, effortlessly carrying a cappella sections of maddening complexity, as well as duets with his own recorded voice, and several intricate passages of percussive physical action. It doesn't seem quite certain whether we're supposed to feel any empathy whatsoever for this particular Don Quixote-but audiences will definitely experience awe for this singer's talents. Mark Bowman-Hester makes a wonderful Sancho Panza. His pingy, laser-focused tenor remains equal parts precise and lyric through even the most complicated stretches of the score. One wants to hear his portrayal of the Hauptmann in Wozzeck, which he sang while employed at the opera in Mannheim. Lothar Odinius, in the thankless role of Cardenio (who is never actually visible) provides one of the opera's most wrenching vocal moments. The three women, Ksenija Lukic, Franziska Gottwald and especially Maria Kowollik shine as the three-pronged Dulcinea and in other characters. Their comfort, and indeed that of the entire cast to vacillate between the use of "bel canto" singing and straight-tone, whispered, shrieked and often half-spoken tones is singularly remarkable. The government should recognize the total rareness of this particular group of singers, musicians and conductor and throw boatloads of money at them…to serve as a firmly contracted lab for the development and future of the operatic form.

Due to the nature of this co-production with the Komische Oper, the Zeitgenössische Oper had a very limited amount of time for technical rehearsals. As a result, Mr. Bohn became responsible not only for holding this complex score together, but also regularly cuing lights, sound and the curtain during the run of the opera. His grace in these areas goes above and beyond his eloquent shaping of the score itself. In addition to a flawless clarity, Mr. Bohn was also intensely involved in the production of Don Quijote de la Mancha's extensive recorded materials. The Overture, a digitally augmented orchestral number that occurs about an hour into the piece yielded several of the most exciting moments of the evening.

The Deutsche Oper, Staatsoper and Komische Oper have snapped to attention as pertains to contemporary operatic literature in the last few seasons. The Deutsche Oper will present Aribert Reimann's Das Schloss (1992) this spring, the Staatsoper just recently hosted a world premiere Toru Takemitsu piece, My Way of Life. The chestnut of the bunch is surprisingly the Komische Oper, Gyorgi Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre of 1978 remaining the most modern work in repertoire. Still, it is this company's landmark co-production with a smaller, specialized company that really highlights the remarkable, yet too often overlooked independent opera scene in Berlin. Without the lumbering bureaucracy of the larger companies, such groups can be more daring with programming, and more nimble with casting. The ZO/KO cooperation, with proper marketing and support, could prove a genius stroke for the opera house, providing a platform in future years for progressive music theater, while sparing the undue risk of programming an ultra-modern or commission opera into the repertoire. The Staatsoper's not unsimilar agreement with Rene Jacobs and the Akademie für Alte Musik has proved wildly successful in providing a brilliant source of specialized programming.

The Berliner Kammeroper, the repertoire of which has vacillated between several different operatic epochs since its inception in 1981, would perhaps be less suited for such a partnership than the Zeitgenössische Oper. Still, the remarkable quality of the company's recent Vatermord should alert both Berlin's audiences and the city's fund-granting administrators to the presence of such independent groups of artists well deserving of attention and support.