Sodomy, Snuff Scenes and the Berlin Opera

To go to the opera in Berlin is to develop an acute sense for the tonalities of provocation.  On the one hand the massive and often brutal interpretative interventions that mark so many operatic stagings here demonstrate the vibrancy of the city’s culture of musical theatre. On the other hand, it becomes easy to confuse the inflammatory with the everyday. One risks becoming inured to novelty and excess.

The point was brought home to me a few yeas ago when I went to a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the Komische Opera, directed by Peter Konwitschny, one of the bad boys of what the Germans called Regietheater or Director’s theater, meaning that the directorial hand is so intrusive that he (or, rarely, she) becomes a character, indeed the main character, in the work.

The novelties of Konwitschny’s Don Giovanni production, still in the repertory of the Komische Oper (the next run will be in June and July of 2009) are too many and too diabolical to enumerate here. Suffice it to say that the lurid imagination of Konwitschny rendered the ball scene at the end of Act I as an all-out Sadist orgy, with Leporello getting sodomized by Masetto.

Berlin is also a city where kids often come to the opera. At the start of the ensuing intermission a boy of about ten years old sitting in the row in front of me queried his mother on the same-sex grapplings just enacted on stage.  This prompted an honest and not unspecific answer from his mother. Thus are some of the youths of Berlin instructed in the sexual smorgasbord on offer in their infamously permissive city. Looking for a way to break the ice on the birds and bees (and bees and bees) talk you were supposed to have with your kid before the onset of puberty?  Go to the opera in Berlin.

But these antics were not what caused the main uproar surrounding this Don Giovanni. Sex in all its forms is old hat on the Berlin opera stage. Most offensive to those critics committed to a transcendent vision of Mozart’s timeless masterpieces was that Konwitschny scuttled the finale a dozen bars from the end so the piece never came to a cadence but instead fragmented, the shard of first violin trailing upward into disoolution and then grating silence. This operatic version of coitus interruptus left more than few in the audience frustrated.

The elderly woman sitting to my right, who more than likely had been a season subscriber to the Komische Opera for several decades extending back to the house’s socialist days when it was still in East Berlin only a couple of blocks of the Berlin Wall, turned to me and remarked lackadaisically, as if stating a fact rather than an opinion: “That was an odd Don Giovanni.”

It’s not as if native Germans have a monopoly on this kind of thing in their capital city. A couple of evenings later I returned to the Komische Oper and saw Catalan director Calixto Bieito’s production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail which moved the action from a Turkish harem to a sex shop, with naked prostitutes arrayed in booths to either side of the theatre even as audience members found their seats before the performance began.

Having just disported himself as Leporello in Don Giovanni, baritone Jens Larsen, one of the stalwarts in the Komische Opera, appeared as Osmin and made his entrance on a revolving stage, stark naked taking a real shower.  Although treating the musical text with reverence, the production otherwise transgressed far beyond the aforementioned Konwitschny’s borders of outrage. Having just been brutally beaten, the heroine Konstanze sings her show aria, “Marten aller Arten,” while Osmin forces a dayglo-wigged prostitute to give him a blow job.  Once pleasured Osmin than completes his gratification by pinioning the hooker and knifing her to death in a startingly realistic demonstration of stagecraft gore.

The production ended with a bloodbath even more extreme than that of Same Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch.

Bieito’s 2004 production did not lack for publicity. One knew in advance what one was getting into, buying the tickets.  It was therefore a bit surprising that within twenty minutes of the performance I attended shouts of outrage came spilling over from the first balcony. The main objection was: ”I want Mozart not this crap.” A spirited colloquy then erupted between opposing factions, before the usher escorted the malcontents from the house.

That is another strength of opera culture in Berlin: the audience often involves itself in the commentary if not also in the action, a fluid set of relationships Montesquieu so brilliantly parodied in his Persian Letters, where Eastern visitors to the theatre in Paris are not sure where the play ends and the audience begins and even, whether the spectacle continues beyond the doors of playhouse.  All the worlds a stage, and in Berlin this stage tips and teeters and rarely allows for the complacency of connoisseurship and diva worship which some claim as the main pleasures of opera going.

Even the generally less adventurous Staatsoper staged the auto de fé at the end of Verdi’s Don Carlo with the Inquisition’s naked, bloodied, and bound victims being hoisted up on stage by their feet.  Photographs of this grim tableau were seen in newspapers across German, and gave even those who’d never been to the opera a peek into the depravities that can be seen and heard there. In contrast to the Puritanical jeremiads against the federal funding of such excesses that one would inevitably get in the United States, I didn’t read any grumblings about the huge subsides enjoyed by the Staatsoper, though perhaps the German tabloids tried to whip up some massed displeasure.

Berlin boasts three world-class opera houses and three IKEA superstores, an astounding density on both fronts.  Berliners redo their kitchens as nonchalantly as they demolish and renovate classics of the operatic repertory. Wherease the IKEAS are a response to the buoyant consumerism, the operatic abundance is a relic of the Cold War cultural competition of a divided Berlin.

Since German reunification, economic shock therapy has not closed any of the opera houses, though Berlin’s finances continue to be in critical condition, and the cultural life-support of the federal government continues to be crucial in sustaining such opulence.  No form of high cultural endeavor is more expensive or has bankrupted more princes and entrepreneurs than opera.

Comfortably located in the upscale district of Charlottenburg, the Deutsche Oper would likely be the first to fall victim to retrenchment.  It is a therefore a pleasant surprise to return to Berlin and find the house still in full operation.

The Deutsche Oper also allows ample opportunity for directorial grandstanding.  I think back fondly to my first trip to the opera in Berlin and to this modernist box of early 1960s vintage for a 2003 production of Mozart’s Idomeneo. Director Hans Neuenfels was already infamous for the leather and chains he introduced into his Salzburg festival production of Così Fan Tutte. For his Duetsch Oper Idomeneo in Berlin, Neuenfels added a scene after the final curtain in which King Idomeneo removed the four severed heads of the prophets and gods Muhammad, Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Poseidon (only Poseidon is found in the original libretto) from a bag, after previously having stripped them down to their underwear and humiliated them like the Emperor in his new clothes. This Big Statement was meant to dramatize the emergence of truly modern man, finally released from his bondage to organized religion
There were boos and whistles from the audience and some calls by Germany’s leading Islamic clerics for solidarity in the name of monotheism against such desecrations. Many politicians came to see the controversial production, and weighed in variously for religious tolerance and artistic freedom. But no demonstrators appeared in front of the opera house. In 2006 in the wake of the furor over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, the Deutsche Oper did for a time remove the production from its repertory. When it was reinstated soon thereafter operagoers were subjected to electronic screening and a heavy police presence.  Montesquieu would have been amused by the blurring of theater and so-called reality.

With this tempest only recently bottled up and tossed back into the stormy seas from which Idomeneo himself had been saved by the Gods he then decapitated, I returned to the Duetsche Oper two weeks again, that is, to the place of my introduction to German Regietheater for a production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

If ever there were a piece in need of a radical re-interpretation it is this one, with its condescending view of black life and its libretto marred by unconvincing, not to say demeaning, pidgin written by the white southerner Dubose Heyward.

But instead of a full-on assault on what Duke Ellington decried as the piece’s “lampblack Negroisms” the Sunday evening audience was treated to a conventional, untroubled, and unchallenging staging.  In the first place, this non-interventionist attitude could be chalked up to the fact that it was not a Deutsche Oper production at all, but that of the touring Capetown Opera.  Reflecting these origins, the production transposes the action from Catfish Row in Jim Crow Charlestown to a South African township during the racist crackdown of the 1970s. This transposition is suggested by the returning miners and looming wrecking ball that crashes into a corner of the set as the curtain rises.

But otherwise the production leaves untouched the errors of the libretto, its characters, and story.  Are there any sympathetic, fully human characters in the piece? The protagonist, Porgy, is a pathetic cripple who asserts himself as a would-be man through rage and murder.  The object of his distorted obsessions is a loose woman who all-too-easily strays from her flagrantly provisional sojourn in a morally grounded community when the pusher Sportin’ Life blows a bit of his Happy Dust her way.  The only confrontration with the humiliating diction of the bogus Charlestown black dialect was purely inadvertent. In the U. S., productions of Porgy provide supertitles for the arcane and unconvincing language of the libretto; one is therefore subjected not only to hearing but having to read phrases like: “I ain’t care who you takes up with while I’s away.” All such local color was effaced with surgicial precision by the clinical grammar of the Deutsche Oper titles.

It struck me as somewhat ironic, then, that the cast of this wonderful all-black company would deliver such a naive staging of the piece.  That the evening satisfied fully as entertainment made this dissonance still louder.  The seductions of Gershwin’s songs, most famously Summertime, can only temporarily assuage such disquiet.  The churning, unsettling modernism of the recitatives and transitions might be read by a more adventurous, and charitable, critic to suggest the brutality of Jim Crow.  But even such nimble hermeneutics, could not change the fact that the piece is far more successful as music than as theatre.  This explains, too, why individual numbers excerpted from the whole have a staying power  in American culture that the opera will never attain.

Ellington unkindly complained that Gershwin’s music “borrowed from everyone from Liszt to Dickie Wells’ kazoo.” But I think that is unfair to the scope and nuance of Gershwin’s achievement in the score and is more a reaction to the racial/cultural politics of the age than it is a considered view of the music itself.

The Cape Town Opera is the only one of South Africa’s four opera companies to survive after the end of Apartheid.  The only other opera company in Africa is in Cairo. The survival of the Cape Town company continues against a stiff headwind of indifference, not say enmity, towards forms of European culture in the New South Africa. Because of a lack of funding and sometimes tenuous ticket sales at home, European tours such this one to Berlin and then on to Oslo, are crucial to the company’s  financial viability.

The enduring existence of the company is largely due to the efforts of the Italian immigrant, Angelo  Gobbato, since 1989 director of opera for the Cape Performing Arts Board and the director of this Porgy and Bess.  In various interviews in the German papers, which were full of articles about the tenacious opera company at the southern tip of Africa, Gobbato attributes the success of Capetown’s operatic enterprise to the rich pool of talent in South Africa, where singing is still a vital part of cultural life, and which is, he claims, quickly disappearing from the European landscape.  Two names among the many worthy of mention here attest to the truth of his faith in indigenous voices. Xolel Sixaba (Porgy), whose rich and resonant baritone carried, sometimes mournfully sometimes ecstatically even to the last row of the cavernous hall, could sing on any stage in the world.  Tsakane Valentien Maswanganyi’s agile, but edgy, soprano and chiseled beauty got every once of lust, addiction, and hope out of the role and music of Bess. After such a display of singing in a major opera center by these cast members and many others one fears a mining of South Africa vocal talent to quench the operatic thirsts of audiences in Europe, where the nurturing of young voices becomes rare and rare. The operatic voices of the stars of the future will bear the mark “Made in Africa.” Whether opera will survive there, too, remains to be seen, though one fears that course of opera and globalization will be an all-too-predictable one.

Indeed, as we left the hall after this memorable if flawed evening, we heard jubilant choral singing of Africa music coming from the dressing rooms at the back of the opera house. The cast had not yet sung enough that evening. Sadly, the house had been only about half full, but the audience had leapt to its feet in a rare German display of heartfelt and immediate enthusiasm.  Hearing these joined voices carry into the indifferent, chestnut-lined side streets of Charlottenburg after the exertions of a three-hour opera, one could almost imagine the wellspring of South African song is inexhaustible.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omni. He can be reached at







DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at