The current Berlin State Opera’s workshop production of the rarely-staged Lehrstück of Bertold Brecht and Paul Hindemith isn’t something you’d want to see everyday: it is strident, raucous, ungainly. But it grabs you by the throat and makes you listen. And then makes you sing as well.
The Lehrstück premiered in the Baden-Baden Music Festival at the end of July 1929 and was a pendant to the Lindberghflug (Lindbergh’s Flight), another collaboration between Brecht and Hindemith—along with Kurt Weill—also put on at the festival. In that piece Lindbergh makes it across the Atlantic, struggling heroically against the personified elements of the natural world: fog, snowstorm, and sleep. But in the Lehrstück the unnamed pilot goes down and no one comes to his aid. He dies in the end, taunted by the chorus: “Now he knows: no one dies when he dies.” Individual striving finds its fitting end. Brecht has the plane topple from the then-tremendous height of 4,000 meters to show just how disastrous the obsession with personal achievement can be. The hero, aeronautical or literary, is not only a figment of his own self-love but also a destructive anachronism in the materialist advance of history.
The Baden Lehrstück caused a huge scandal, which pleased Brecht. After the premiere the funders withdrew their support for the entire festival. The upset was caused mainly by a scene in which two clowns cut off the limbs of a third who had been complaining of pain in his extremities. Huge amounts of stage-blood were emitted through a hidden bellows, much to the horror of the audience. The scene, considered optional by Hindemith, was left out of the Staatsoper production, though one might have expected that the bloodletting would have been an invitation to the kind of excesses Berlin theater-goers have long become inured to.
Both Brecht and Hindemith, himself a youthful author of avant-garde dramatic texts, sought an alternative to traditional theater and what they saw as its reliance on illusion, unlikely narratives, and the separation between audience and actors. The Lehrstück, or Didactic Piece, was an attempt to blast apart this distinction. As Hindemith wrote in his foreword: “The piece is not to thought of for use in theater and concert performances, in which the audience is to be entertained and edified. Rather the public is to be directly involved as an actor in the performance.” It is best, advises Hindemith, if the passages to be sung by the “masses” are rehearsed with the help of the director and professional singers, even in the performance itself.
The Baden collaboration seemed rich with potential for both artists. Brecht sought to involve the theater-goers directly and thereby to instruct them in the critique of capitalist society. Hindemith was granted a venue in which to pursue his mission of composing works that were both accessible and conceptually ambitious, while musically educating those without their own music room, that is, those beyond and below the bourgeois milieu of piano lessons, lieder evenings, and trips to the opera. Despite the piece’s pronouncements about the negative effects of individualism, however, Brecht and Hindemith didn’t work together again, the former complaining that the latter’s music was too varied, too stylistically promiscuous.
Yet it is precisely the virtuosic breadth of Hindemith’s contribution that was the most rewarding aspect of the Staatsoper Lehrstück revival. The imaginative orchestration of the work done by the production’s musical director, David Coleman, combined recorded inputs from the famous Staatsoper orchestra with live music, a drum kit and trumpet, a bass flute whispering deeply between an upright piano and conductor Coleman. He stood at a real chamber organ topped by a synthesizer that alternatively emitted cantankerous harpsichord plinks and plunks or grumbled through disaffected octaves, while the ghostly remnants of the bourgeois orchestra wafted in on speakers as if from a bygone world.
This rich spectrum of colors made vibrant Hindemith’s quirky confrontation with jazz, his somber choral utterances that could be taken both as parody of religious solemnity and as hymns to the worker’s movement, and his masterful counterpoint that in its resistance to traditional rules evoked both the demands and rewards of cooperation.
During the current renovations to the permanent Staatsoper theater in central Berlin, the workshop has taken up residence in a rectangular commercial space that was made to have the look of a cafeteria or soup kitchen for the Lehrstück. The conductor and a few of the musicians were at their posts in the midst of the tables, where the singers mingled with the “masses”—a younger crowd to be sure, than the usual opera audience. These “cast” members were marked by their neck, knee, and arm braces—representing perhaps the injuries in the airplane crash or the crash from society’s unfriendly skies into the soup kitchen.
Board games like backgammon and checkers were placed on the tables should distraction be required from Brecht’s didactic messages: that only those without a function, those not tethered to a factory machine, are irreplaceable; that art should serve a social purpose; that we instinctively and cruelly look past the poverty that surrounds us. The last of these claims was brought home hammer-like with a video interlude of refugees from Somalia enduring a harrowing night-time passage by boat, and then turning up on the Arabian Peninsula, leaving behind heavy seas only to have to brave the desert in their epic and likely fatal journey towards Europe.
As for breaking down the barrier between doers and watchers, the “audience” only reluctantly chipped in on the Hindemith numbers that should have involved them, in spite of one banner hanging above the tables that urged everyone to “make as many mistakes as possible.” But there was plenty of full-throated musical-hall enthusiasm for “Es ist noch Suppe Da” (There’s still some soup)—this rousing rendition perhaps a posthumous slap to Hindemith, whose more angular melodies tended to scare off participation rather then encourage it.
The chef, Nicholas Isherwood, sang a powerful baritone from his post at the sink and stove, appearing occasionally to dish out some asparagus soup or dispense plastic shotglasses of vodka.
The Siegfried and Parsifal quotes mischievously inserted by Hindemith as a derogatory wink at the past were delivered with disgruntled heroic bravura by tenor Rainer Goldberg, a retired member of the Staatsoper. When he demanded soup he was scorned by an outbreak of maniacal rapping by a member of the cast, a frenzy of rage that threatened to burst the Velcro shackles of his neckbrace. This was one of many modernizing and generally wayward textual interventions introduced by the young director Michael von zur Mühlen, the intended effect of which was to alienate—something Brecht himself does far better.
Even if Brecht’s version of communist karaoke did not convince everyone, it was good old-fashioned, probably reactionary fun to feed in the Hindemith-Brecht soup kitchen and to be given a chance to join the ideological arguments with lifted voices. And while there was a tendency to grin and laugh at the proceedings from outside them, the themes and their timing continually confronted the audience with their currency: the replaceability of labor; the literal ascendance of technology over people; and especially, the prescience of a 1929 premiere that anticipated Black Thursday’s crash by only a few months.
There was enough vodka and soup for all to have their fill and more, before, during and after the performance. In contrast to the current overcrowded Atlantic flight paths pioneered less than a century ago by the Nazi-sympathizing Lindbergh, this nourishment was included in the price of the tickets (a mere 20 Euros). Fortified with enough spirits, simple fare, and oracular condemnation of consumerism, I was emboldened by these still fresh adventures in participatory musical theater of some eighty years ago, even while I heeded Brecht’s directions on how to brace for the plunge.