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Geschlossene Gesellschaft - Deutsche Oper Berlin

Libretto #2 (2022)

Prison as a private function

Director David Hermann explores the theme of imprisonment with his production of FIDELIO – and asks: What price freedom?

They say Beethoven’s FIDELIO is the great operatic work on the theme of freedom. I wouldn’t call it that. In my mind FIDELIO is primarily about imprisonment. Captivity as a concept is not something that can be depicted on stage, and certainly not using a realist approach. You have to hit on an angle, a register, that credibly renders the prison system in a theatrical setting. Beethoven and his librettists display a finely tuned sensibility to the social structures of the prison, with its rules, its dynamics of dependency, its hierarchies and power disparities. I’m curious about what the system does with the people associated with it for whatever reason, be it involuntarily as convicts or as warders and employees acting ostensibly as free agents.

I began my work on FIDELIO pondering how to go about creating a realm on stage that audiences can immerse themselves in without losing that feeling of strangeness. Because for most people prison is an environment that they’re never going to encounter at first hand. We may conjure up mental images of cells, clanging iron doors, long corridors etc, but we can’t make the jump from that to the lived experience of captivity. At an empathetic level, imprisonment is almost as far removed as death – and subject to similar taboos. Yet prisons are constructs; they function as their own ecosystems outside the boundaries of civil society and can be portrayed as social systems peopled by individuals with complex fears, yearnings and relations of dependency. Instead of recreating an authentic location, we’re setting up a space that audiences can relate to on an emotional level. The secret dungeon in which Florestan is awaiting his end might have people reflecting on politicians’ abuse of power, but it’s initially designed to unnerve them and create a vicarious shiver.

In this prisonscape Leonore and Don Pizarro appear to be the only two characters acting with free agency. Pizarro, unscrupulous and scheming as he is, harnesses the structures of power and repression by establishing a secret prison and shutting away Florestan, his foe, in its depths. On the other side we have Leonore, disguised as Fidelio, fighting the good fight to liberate her wrongfully detained husband. They’re both making themselves out to be something they’re not, transgressing social conventions in the process, yet it quickly becomes apparent that they, too, are acting within an outer shell of constraints. Anyone stepping foot in the prison surrenders freedom in some form, be they inmate, warder, governor or jailer. All of the characters end up stressed or harrowed in some way, worn ragged by the prison and their part within it. Pizarro has never had carte blanche, as he knows that his system can’t last forever. Even Leonore, in pursuing her goal, cannot avoid abusing her power and hurting innocent bystanders. What makes FIDELIO so modern and fascinating is that there is no instance of unadulterated heroism.

Does Liberty win out in the end? Superficially yes, because our courageous Leonore achieves the unthinkable: not only does she free her husband; she also triggers an uprising leading to the demise of the unjust system as a whole – taking the idea of liberation to its ultimate level. But then, suddenly, it’s over. In his score Beethoven admirably conveyed the abrupt ending. I find the popular acclaim a little over the top, too triumphal; it even drowns out the two protagonists at first, who are all but smothered by the crowd. I find myself wondering: What now? What will the energised populace do, now that everyone is free? Is it even capable of agreeing on what freedom entails and how they should use it? Or is the spread of opinions too wide, too disparate? One of the key questions for us has been: what happens after the authority figures have exited the stage? –  Recorded by Tilman Mühlenberg

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