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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Today we are giving away 2 x 2 free tickets for the performance of DIE FLEDERMAUS on 31 December 2022 at 7.30 pm. If you would like to take part in the prize draw, please send an e-mail today to with the subject "Das 3. Fensterchen".

In 2018, the curtain rose on a new production of FLEDERMAUS directed by Rolando Villazón. For the busy singer, director, presenter and author, this production was a matter close to his heart, as he was able to play with comic elements in Strauss’ master operetta on the one hand, but also give space to the melancholic and thoughtful on the other. For Strauss's operetta is about cheating, underground parties and the beguiling power of champagne, but also about the description of social facades and above all the abysses that lurk at the back of the bourgeois salon. And because there is always betrayal, partying and drinking, Villazón sets the three acts in three different times and takes the audience on a journey from the 19th century through the 1950s to the future.

It was already a novelty in 1874 at the Theater an der Wien that the waltz king Johann Strauss presented a plot that was not set in mythical faraway places or in fantasy states, but took the upper middle-class salon as its starting point. The bourgeois audience saw itself, with all its conceit, its double standards, grotesquely distorted on stage. The story was not new, of course: Strauß and his collaborator Genée drew on a French tabloid comedy by the Offenbach librettists Meilhac and Halévy, but supplemented it with piquant details. For example, the appearance of the disguised Rosalinde at Prince Orlofsky's ball. In general, the intensification and centring of the plot on the masquerade party with the final homage to alcohol, the general fraternisation and the champagne-loving du-i-du is due to Genée. Otherwise, the farce about cheating has all the ingredients of a good comedy: The rebellious chambermaid, the hidden lover, the self-adulterous but jealous husband and the disguised countess.

Burkhard Ulrich, Hulkar Sabirova, Annika Schlicht, Attilio Glaser, Padraic Rowan, Thomas Lehman, Jörg Schörner, Meechot Marrero, Kathleen Bauer and Ingo Paulick sing and play for you under the musical direction of Yi-Chen Lin.

Closing date: 3 December 2022. The winners will be informed by e-mail on 5 December 2022. The tickets will be sent to you by e-mails. The legal process is excluded.