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There’s lots of opera to make sure to miss right off the bat in the month of January. In two weeks the Deutsche Oper premieres its new production of Rossini’s first monster hit, Tancredi. Why miss a chance to revel in this rarely-produced 19-century blockbuster? Because it’s got that coloratura chestnut “Di tanti palpiti” often frolicked through by Marilyn Horne and other agile mezzos, and I don’t want to have that unshakeable tune burrowing around in my head for weeks afterwards. Egads! just mentioning the thing has let loose the insouciant insurgent, the tuneful terrorist. Out, out accursed ear-worm! No use—I might as well go anyway, now. So much for resolution number one.
Just a couple of blocks down the Bismarckstrasse, the Staatsoper currently has its provisional home in the Schillertheater, while its traditional house in the center of Berlin is being renovated to the tune of more than 200 million Euros. The original building was funded by Frederick the Great, then flattened in World War II and quickly reconstructed again. Frederick micromanaged not only his opera house’s architecture, but also the content of the operas performed in it, much to the chagrin of his longsuffering Kapellmeister Carl Heinrich Graun. In 1755 the Prussian King wrote the story to the opera Montezuma with music by Graun, in which the music-loving monarch treats his despotic New World predecessor as an enlightened figure betrayed by his own people and cynically sacrificed to the Spanish invaders. 2012 happens to be the tricentennial of Frederick’s birth and the cultural machinery of Berlin, Brandenburg, and Germany at large is mobilizing to commemorate his dubious accomplishments. The Fredrick the Great table in the famous basement of Dussmann’s bookshop is already stacked high with opportunistic and hardly convincing, efforts to breath life into the monarch’s facile music. As for his Montezuma at the Staatsoper—it’s a concertante performance, and the exoticism essentially to this piece needs the headdresses and loincloths to keep it rolling along.
Finally, there’s the third of Berlin’s three opera houses, the Komische Oper, where a new production of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz premiers just a few days later in a staging by the controversial Catalan theater director Calixto Bieito. Bieito has already brought an extreme version of Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail with real prostitutes and a grim snuff scene and, a couple years ago, his version of Gluck’s Armide with squadrons of naked men bouncing up and down on designer sofas. What will the mischievous Spaniard do with the Germanic supernaturalism of Der Freischütz? The previous orgies outrage and oddness of Bieito that I witnessed live didn’t make for convincing musical theatre, though focusing on the violence inherent in the institution of the harem in the Entführung was certainly unforgettable. How unsettling can the dark underbelly of German Romanticism being on the opera stage? Maybe I will have to find out after all.
Right after this volatile brew gets tipped over by the Catalan visitor, supreme schlockmeister of the violin André Rieu with his orchestra of dashing men in tails and fair ladies in Cinderella gowns will flounce into Berlin at the beginning of February. Never will I dive into that pink champagne bath of pandering repertoire and winking showmanship! Yet audiences love his entertaining mix of sappy melody and cheap virtuosity. Maybe I could use a few a few sartorial and dramaturgical pointers for my own meager efforts at performance…
Which brings me to another glittering showman, Cameron Carpenter. As readers of this column will know, I’ve had a couple of go-rounds with this sequined sensation of the Virtual Pipe Organ (the VPO) over the years. As chance would have it, Carpenter has in the mean time moved to Berlin, where I’m spending the year. I’ve already showed true restraint by avoiding his appearances here. His career rockets upward; the pace of his touring and self-promotion is blinding. He’s got a date at the Philharmonie in Munich at the end of March, when I’ll be on other musical business at the same time. Thus I’m going several hundred kilometers out of my way just to be able avoid him in the same city. Now that’s resolve!
In macho black rather than glittering white, Bruce Springsteen comes to the Berlin Olympic Stadium on May 30. In 2009 Bruce did the Super Bowl in tropical Tampa after having slogged through the kitschy political hymning of Obama in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Now he’ll bring it all together with a massed display in this cradle of fascisms. I’m going to take a wide berth around this frenzy, unless, against all my steely efforts, sociological fascination for the creepy overlap between mass entertainment and the cult of personality in an archetypal Nazi amphitheater gets the better of me.
About halfway between Munich and Berlin the longest piece in the history of music is underway in the central German town of Halberstadt; a presentation of John Cage’s ORGAN2 /ASLSP —the last bit stands for “As Slow as Possible.” The piece is due to last 639 years, which marks the span between the beginning of the performance and the building of the first large organ in northern Europe in the same city of Halberstadt in 1361. The project was initiated by the interesting, experimental German organist Gerd Zacher, although proceedings began a year behind schedule in 2001, rather than 2000, so that the performance will conclude in 2640. So far there have been fourteen different sonorities; since August 5 of 2011 c, d-sharp and a-sharp have been sounding on a fragmentary organ erected specifically for this work. The next change, also of three notes, happens on July 5 of 2012. After that there’s another reconfiguration in October 2013, and then that sonority endures for seven years without movement. I’m not one to get to anything early, and if ever there were a procrastinator’s dream, it’s this. Still 627 years to go! Maybe I will swing by in 2020.
2012 is the hundredth year of Cage’s birth, and in honor of this fact, I’m skipping all performances of his must famous/notorious conceit: 4’33’’. ( I do plan to lead my own performance, however, one in which I encourage as many cell phones to go off during the span as possible.) If I really need to hear a “pure” account of the “work” I can download one of Cage’s definitive versions through iTunes: a steal at ninety-nine cents.
Speaking of mass hysteria, the Olympics kick off in London at the end of July and Daniel Barenboim’s West Eastern Divan Orchestra, made up of young Israeli and other Middle Eastern musicians, adds to the marketing tumult with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth as a BBC Proms concert on the night the games begin. Springsteen’s Berlin appearance begins to appear quaint by comparison.
And finally, peeking around the corner of 2012 into the start of 2013, we’ll have another Obama inauguration to run screaming from. What new crime against reality and good musical judgment will be committed on that January day more than a year from now? It can’t be as bad as last time around, even if it were something like Austerity Measures: A Bi-Partisan Barbershop Quartet with Timothy Geithner and Alan Krueger paired with opera-loving Newt Gingrich and heartland John Boehner doing “Beautiful Dreamer.”
Can I hold out against the lures of all these musical offerings, Prussian or otherwise? Resolutions are made to be broken, especially in an election year.