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Blick zurück nach vorn - Deutsche Oper Berlin

Looking back, looking forward

He brought in theatre directors to do opera, put forgotten works from the 1920s – Korngold, Langgaard, Schreker – back on the programme and presided over new stagings of grand opéras by Giacomo Meyerbeer. He set a record for brand-new commissions, with nigh on one world premiere every year. A tour of Dietmar Schwarz’s twelve years as Artistic Director

 

Dietmar Schwarz, there’s hardly an intendant in Europe who has commissioned more operas than you have in your twelve years at the helm.
If that’s the case, then your statement applies to the wider world. What other region, if not Europe, should be producing new works of musical theatre?

Why new works of opera? Hasn’t everything that needs to be said been said?
Alfred Schnittke, the composer, once said that musical theatre is just corpses in make-up, works by dead composers that are constantly being staged in different form. I’ve had the privilege of spending my entire career doing what I loved, mounting works of musical theatre. And the most interesting part of it was working with people who live in the here and now – by which I mean the makers and enablers just as much as the artists. The nature of our work and what inspires us changes up a gear when we get to interact with people who we can really talk with. Putting together a programme is teamwork. Bringing modern composers into the process is so valuable.

What does the value of brand-new works consist in?
In exactly that, their brand-newness. Opera houses receive a lot of funding and subsidies. It’s part of our remit to reflect and nurture modern stances and positions, so that’s what we do. It goes without saying that these modern works have to generate their own audiences. Anything that’s new has to assert itself vis-à-vis the works of the canon, some of which are hundreds of years old.

What does a new opera have to have in order to go down well?
You need a good story. And the core of the story’s got to be mirrored in the music. The triumph comes from the music. We’ve just seen that happening with WRITTEN ON SKIN. The story is great, timeless in the truest sense of the word, but more than that: George Benjamin is capable of writing music that really touches people.

À propos timeless: You opened your tenure at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in autumn 2012 with THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL by Helmut Lachenmann. It’s a political piece and modern; some think it’s clunky, some brilliant. Was this you setting out your stall for the city fathers?
(Laughs) Berlin wasn’t hanging on my arrival as someone who was at last going to stage modern opera. It had been done before.

Although not to the extent that you went on to do it.
Correct. If I wanted to send a signal, it was definitely important to kick off with a modern work.

It was a critical and box-office success. And then you set about mounting works from the repertoire.
And we opened the »Tischlerei«. When I was still in talks with the Senate, I made sure they knew that I wanted a performance space for totally new stuff, for experiments and contemporary adaptations, for young artists.

In what way is the experimental material staged in the Tischlerei important?
It sparks dialogue, aerates the opera house, offers artists opportunities. There’s a difference between directors adding their slant to a standard opera and us getting modern artists to tackle the music head-on and tweak it. This way we create an environment that fosters new ideas about what opera can be. In twelve years of the Tischlerei we’ve aired hundreds of new forms of music ranging from audio experiments and re-mix evenings to children’s operas and new musical theatre by up-and-coming talent that we then go on to produce on the main stage.

Right. The last example of that was NEGAR by Keyvan Chemirani and Marie-Ève Signeyrole, an opera set in Iran. The music was romantic and very accessible, pitched between European Modernism and Persian Classicism. Perfectly suited to the storyline.
I thought so too. And now the director’s going to be staging Verdi’s MACBETH on the main stage.

What’s the reason that modern operas sound like they do? As if they want to avoid melodious music at all costs. Nothing overblown, no arias, no emotions. Sorry, is that a question that an interviewer can put to an artistic director?
(Laughs) It’s a question that should be put! Emotional responses to music are always about the listeners’ personal experience and what their ears are used to hearing. If your concept of yearning is pegged to images of the dying Violetta, than you may have issues with other soundscapes. On the other hand George Benjamin has just shown in WRITTEN ON SKIN that erotica can sound different and move differently.

Indeed. The music and the spectacle as a whole were very - shall we say – stimulating.
You see, and that was modern! For LADY MACBETH OF THE MTSENSK DISTRICT Shostakovich actually wrote a piece of music representing an orgasm – quite clear to modern audiences but a discombobulating irritant to many back then. Appreciating the emotionality of new music requires time, in some instances a lot of time, and a certain bank of experience listening to music. You can’t expect that from everyone. But this is opera and opera audiences tend to be interested, curious and passionate. And then there are the events and talks and colloquiums that we organise on composers and their place in history as an accompaniment to new or rediscovered works.

Twelve years as artistic director in Berlin is a long time. Does your evolution as a professional take place alongside that of the other groups you work with: municipality, team, audience?
What can I say? It would be a bit sad if I said »No«. Back in January 2020, when we put on A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM by Benjamin Britten, not a modern piece but still clunky, it was a hit with audiences and I remember looking around and thinking »Wow, we’ve done so much«. And then the pandemic hit.

And all opera houses had to shut down.
And suddenly it was all about the bottom line and other imperatives. But now our audiences have returned and we’re back to pre-pandemic numbers.

How did you manage it?
For an institution like the Deutsche Oper Berlin I think it’s crucial to stay part of the conversation. We’re not just the largest opera house in Berlin; we also have the largest core audience of regular operagoers. Which means we’re dealing with people who identify with us and who like to get worked up over new productions but always end up coming back. We get more applause and more booing than other houses do. Some of our new productions generate strong feelings – positive and negative – and you have to be able to roll with the punches.

With Castorf’s production of LA FORZA DEL DESTINO there was almost a riot at the premiere.
Yes, that was a bit much. I thought it was unfair. But Lars Eidinger was at the premiere and he made a point of telling me that he’d be glad to get that kind of reaction in the theatre occasionally.

You’ve brought a whole string of theatre directors in to try their hand at opera. Why?
Because it’s good for the onstage action and the narrative thread. Opera used to focus on set design, costumes and singing, but it can be invigorating to put the acting part of it at the forefront. I’ve always liked doing that, at other opera houses too, bringing creatives over from theatre to opera.

Opera debuts can crash and burn, too, though. What are the pitfalls to avoid?
If a production is not sufficiently informed by the material and the score, that can be problematic. It won’t hit the mark and is liable to be too loud and gaudy and superficial.

ANTIKRIST was arguably one of the hit productions of recent years. You unearthed this decidedly quirky and unwieldy »opera« by Rued Langgaard and even landed Ersan Mondtag to direct it. What’s the story there?
A colleague told me about Ersan Mondtag, so I had a look at some of his pieces at the Gorki Theater. His original speciality was set design and when you consider the opulence of his stuff, it fits the glove of musical theatre perfectly. It’s not about words on the page. And Mondtag also has an emotional connection to the music. The ideal ingredients.

Another example is Karabulut. First there was GREEK on the parking deck and then IL TRITTICO last year.
Karabulut was discovered by our dramaturg Dorothea Hartmann, who’d seen her productions at the Volksbühne. The trick is to find works that align with what we’re looking for – and Puccini’s clarity aligns perfectly with Karabulut’s directness. And then you have to hold the hands of these first-timers as they go about grappling with the merry-go-round associated with an opera production: chorus, stage, technical side, directing singers in the acting craft. All parties have to thrash things out before the green-lighting. If I have to sit in on a rehearsal, then it’s too late; the horse has already bolted.

What’s the idea behind mounting new productions of old operas?
Every opera is an opportunity for the director to ponder on society and the present-day. And as soon as you do something people are not expecting – as was done very successfully with AIDA – you have a chance to study the central core of a work with fresh eyes. So you’re in effect updating the piece, too. Not that you have to revamp every production. Personally I love a balance between museum and gallery, between old and new. It creates tension.

Is that why you revived the works you did? You brought back opera works from the 1920s, with Korngold and Schreker and the like. And before that the Meyerbeer cycle.
We spoke earlier about doing works from the canon and about the sediment that gathers around them. A lot of these composers were forgotten not because their works were bad but because they didn’t align with mainstream ways of thinking. So it’s about politics and history – and we’ve got an eye on those areas too. These perspectives illustrate the breadth of the genre. And they can exploit the size and potential of an institution like the Deutsche Oper Berlin – and of the scientific and social ecosystem we’re embedded in.

How does one go about commissioning a new work? What comes first: subject or composer?
First you need a composer who’s up to writing a work for a large opera house. Then you sort out the rest: orchestra, chorus, singers. It mounts up.

What’s the gestation period for a new production?
Take IL TEOREMA DI PASOLINI by Giorgio Battistelli. From our first conversation during a dinner in Rome to the world premiere it was four years. And you can’t accelerate that process. Battistelli had written for houses in Rome and Paris, so doing an opera in Berlin tweaked his interest. We’ve been friends for years and had been meeting up from time to time and chatting about material. Battistelli usually adapts from a literary source and I’d already collaborated with him over ON THE MARBLE CLIFFS, an opera based on an Ernst Jünger novel. Somewhere along the line we got talking about Pasolini and »Il Teorema« and everything fitted: Pasolini is well known, the material is top-drawer and there was something cool about basing an opera on a film.

Two questions to close with. First, how would you define musical theatre? Dramaturgs love using the term.
Someone once said that musical theatre sounded to him like sexual intercourse. I prefer the term ‘opera’. It captures the opulence, the dimensions, the profundity, the passion so much better.

And what will you be doing after the Deutsche Oper Berlin?
Devoting myself to the small things of life.

 

Interview: Ralf Grauel

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