Give My Regards to Innsbruck
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Give My Regards to Innsbruck

Broadway musicals are turning up with surprising frequency in opera houses in Austria and Germany. ADAM J. GOLDMANN looks at the trend.

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West Side Story at Berlin’s Komische Oper, 2013
© Iko Freese/ 2015
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Diana Tomsche, Eliza Doolittle in Heidelberg’s My Fair Lady, 2014
© Florian Merdes 2015

Is the Marschallin making way for Mama Rose? In 2015, a growing number of Germany and Austria’s nearly 100 opera companies will showcase a variety of American musicals and operettas, along with Verdi, Puccini, Mozart and Wagner operas. Hair, Evita, Show Boat and My Fair Lady are among the dozens of Broadway shows appearing at opera houses from Bremen to Vienna and from Aachen to Zwickau. These days, singers may be asked to perform the Carmen quintet on Tuesday and the “Tonight” quintet from West Side Story on Friday. 

While staging musicals in the opera house is hardly new, the widespread popularity of this practice throughout the German-speaking world within the past decade is noteworthy. In the U.S., performing musicals in the hallowed confines of the opera house seems designed to dignify the genre, as was the case with New York City Opera’s Sondheim productions. In Europe, however, the impulse to “dress up” musicals for the opera stage is, for the most part, lacking. In fact, Musiktheater — the term favored by many houses in the German-speaking world — encompasses everything from musical vaudeville to Wagnerian heavies. And while German directors have a not-entirely-undeserved reputation for serving up radical and revisionist productions, when they tackle musicals, they tend to leave their more outlandish ideas at the door.

The Komische Oper Berlin is probably the top destination for quality musical productions in the German-speaking world. Since the arrival of intendant Barrie Kosky in 2012, the focus on musicals and operettas has increased, with blockbuster productions of West Side Story, Paul Abraham’s Ball im Savoy and Nico Dostal’s Clivia — alongside works by Mozart, Janácˇek and Tchaikovsky. 

Kosky points to a curious lack of understanding in Germany of the classic Broadway tradition. “The great musicals belong to the tradition of singspiel and operetta and opera,” he says. “And most of these great musicals were written by exiles from Europe or their children, so there’s this great inheritance. Broadway would have been impossible without Eastern European, German and Austrian Jews willingly or unwillingly journeying to New York. But this has been lost in the postwar German cultural scene.” 

Kurt Weill is one figure who might bridge this divide. But while his famous collaborations with Bertolt Brecht are among the most-produced musical works on the German stage, his innovative and challenging works for Broadway have been all but unknown here. Indeed, there’s a shocking level of neglect for the American output of the composer of Dreigroschenoper and Mahagonny. Kosky points to Street Scene,Weill’s collaboration with Langston Hughes, as a case in point. “The Germans don’t understand the mix of styles. It’s a piece of music-theater that is sometimes a musical, sometimes an operetta and sometimes an opera,” he says. “And they think it is something Weill just did when he was in exile.” The increasing thirst for musical theater in the German-speaking world is a promising sign that that might be changing. 

Because of their size and architecture, many opera houses in Germany and Austria make it possible to preserve a sense of intimacy. With the exception of a handful of top companies in major cities — Vienna, Munich, Berlin, Dresden, Stuttgart — most houses have fewer than 1,000 seats. Theater Heidelberg, which this season is presenting Akhnaten, La Traviata and Pelléas et Mélisande, as well as Cabaret and My Fair Lady, has roughly 500, practically the size of a Broadway theater. This also means that houses can keep amplification to a minimum and preserve what Kosky refers to as the “audience–performer connection.” 

Heidelberg is one of dozens of German cities with a State Theater that performs everything from concerts to plays to operas and musicals, which means that the same orchestra and chorus might be doing Mozart one night, Bernstein the next. Germany has its own Great White Way in Hamburg, where Broadway megahits such as The Lion King,Phantom of the Opera and Aladdin attract German audiences from all over. But it is primarily the opera house that keeps musicals alive in Germany and Austria.

Soprano Barbara Daniels says doing musicals in the opera house is a “phenomenon that just gets bigger and bigger” but adds that it is by no means new. After a long, distinguished career singing Puccini and Verdi heroines, Daniels appeared in Gypsy and Hello Dolly! in Innsbruck in the early 2000s, shortly before going into retirement. “When I started out singing, nobody thought to give me a musical role, because it wasn’t the time for that,” Daniels says. “But today, part of being in an ensemble theater is singing everything — modern opera, operetta, musical theater and opera. It’s not so easy.

“You want to hear a beautiful voice singing beautifully,” she says, enumerating one of the potential gains from doing musicals at an opera house. It should come as no surprise that, as a classically trained singer, she endorses the practice, however rare nowadays, of singing in musicals without amplification. “So many of these shows were written for big voices,” she says, adding that early in her career she sang Anita in West Side Story and Aldonza in Man of La Mancha without a mic. “Innsbruck has done unbelievable musicals, but almost all of them have been with mics. And most of the cast members were from the house. The woman singing the lead role in Les Mis was singing the lead role in Fanciulla del West almost within the same week!”

This raises the question, of course, of exactly how Daniels approached singing these roles. “I belted some, and I crooned some,” she says. “Numbers like Gypsy’s ‘Small World’ were almost legitimately singable, whereas Rose’s line ‘I had a dream!’ or ‘Have an Eggroll, Mr. Goldstone’ were belting bombs, to be sure. I must add that due to the vocal unevenness of the cast — many of whom were dancers, sans voice, and others actors with little vocal equipment — there were mics for all. They turned mine to the lowest levels to adjust for differences in vocal delivery.”

Big operatic voices, of course, are not always ideal for musicals. But whether or not opera companies choose to cast a lyric soprano or heldentenor in a Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hammerstein show, they have the wherewithal to perform the scores with full orchestration. 

“That’s what’s fantastic about the German opera system and musicals,” says Kosky. “In these places, you can experience it on a scale that no commercial producer in New York or London would even be able to imagine.” He adds that in coming seasons he will bring My Fair Lady, Gypsy, Candide and Fiddler on the Roof to his house. The last of these was the most successful show at the Komische under the reign of its founding director Walter Felsenstein, with more than 500 performances. “That’s a piece that cries out for 100 people on the stage. And that’s impossible in a conventional theater,” he says.

Not all musicals, however, are equally suited to making the transition from Broadway to a German-speaking house. For one thing, there is a danger that much will be lost in translation. Sondheim poses a particular problem. Not only are the lyrics virtually impossible to translate, but often the themes themselves are culturally specific — New York stories about New York dilemmas. For Kosky, the key is to find shows that transcend cultural barriers, and to find ways to make audiences connect with them. “You need to concentrate on the timeless elements of each story, even though it takes place on the vaudeville circuit of America, that have to be as ambiguous and ambivalent as the Baltimore theater of Kiss Me Kate or the streets of New York in West Side Story. They are metaphors for something else,” he says.

In the worst-case scenario, a director might completely misunderstand the work in question and subject it to what Kosky calls “the worst clichés of German intellectual music theater. A piece that’s light and joyful and ironic will suddenly come across as the most turgid, miserable thing you could possibly imagine,” he says with a sigh. 

Daniels suggests that the increasing interest in musicals may have something to do with the global financial downturn. Even though the German-speaking world has remained committed to funding the arts, she suggests that opera houses may be diversifying in order to attract new audiences. And why not? There’s no shortage of great musicals; it seems unfair to judge a work such as Anything Goes for narrative weaknesses. “They’re funny stories,” Daniels says. “Maybe a little primitive and simple. Then again, is there anything more primitive and simple than Trovatore?”

In an era dominated by jukebox musicals such as Beautiful, Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys and Rock of Ages — not to mention the never-ending stream of Disney adaptations — it’s possible to understand a suspicion of the genre from the guardians of the established culture in the German-speaking world. “If you’re going to present musicals at an opera house, there has to be a damn good reason why you want to do it,” says Kosky. “And the first position must be because the music is brilliant. The second is ‘What can we bring to the piece that a commercial theater or more mainstream production can’t offer?’” The financial stakes for shows on Broadway these days are so high that often even selling 90% of all available seats is considered a failure. Considering the luxury subsidies being lavished on musicals in this corner of the world, Sting, whose musical The Last Ship recently sank on Broadway, might consider translating his show into German. spacer 

ADAM J. GOLDMANN is OPERA NEWS’s Berlin correspondent. He also writes for Gramophone, The Wall Street Journal and The Forward. 

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