The New Power of Musicians in the Theater
Theater is a collective art in which a few of the most important actors work in the shadows and step into the limelight only during the applause at the premier. They are, for example, the directors and, for many years, were also the theater musicians. In recent years that has been often differently arranged at German theaters. Now the musicians too may romp about on the stage.
In many productions of director-driven German-speaking theater, in the work of Jorinde Dröse and Karin Beier, Frank Castorf and Dieter Dorn, but also in that of British director Katie Mitchell and Dutch director Johan Simons, musicians are no longer merely invisible purveyors of an atmospheric background but appear rather as nearly equal players with the actors. In terms of theater history, this is an act of Reconquista, the reconquest of an old right: hidden for centuries in the orchestra pit and side boxes and behind the mixing console, it now looks as if theater musicians are again being allowed on stage, where they already had their place in the ancient theater.
A genie with accordion
In the mid-1990s director Andreas Kriegenburg was one of the first who not only entered into a steady cooperation with a musician but also let him take part in the action. For a decade and a half Laurent Simonetti (1959 - 2008) was Kriegenburg’s collaborator and either himself appeared as a genie (with an accordion slung over his shoulder) to perform the music that he composed particularly for the productions or, as in Kriegenburg’s grandiose version of Hebbel’s Nibelungen, specially introduced a musician to sing his melancholy songs.
In contemporary German theater it has become the fashion to send entire ensembles of musicians onto the stage who then make themselves comfortable at the edge of the unfolding drama – whether in Professor Unrat at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin, Wilhelm Meister at the Dresden Schauspielhaus, the Robbers in Hamburg or in Botho Strauß’s Easy Game (Leichtes Spiel) currently playing at the Munich Staatsschauspiel. Whereas a decade ago nearly every director of the younger generation used to have his favorite songs from his CD collection boomed over the loudspeakers so as to convey an impression of his view of the world, today live music on the open stage is the preferred means of setting the mood.
Nazi murderers tap their toes to wistful melodies
The man to blame for all this is above all the Swiss director Christoph Marthaler. It was he who, at the start of the 1990s, began to bring musical brio into the German theater. He fitted song texts into his productions or built new plays out of song texts (Murx, the European!), carefully rehearsed his actors in choral singing and had them strike up old folk songs, and even discovered a singspiel in Goethe’s Faust.
Since then musicians have decisively influenced the work of the most conspicuous theater directors in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, even if they have not always joined in the happenings on stage. The musician Wolfgang Siuda, for example, underlays the work of director Jossi Wieler with a buzzing, screeching, sometimes lapping carpet of sound. Siuda composes a kind of lounge music that likes to play with classical motifs. In Wieler’s production of Rechnitz, Elfriede Jelinek’s play about Nazi murderers, Siuda repeatedly alludes to motifs from the Freischütz and creates an atmosphere of illusory comfort that lightly polemicizes against the traditional sentimentality of the German educated classes. The music of Michael Verhovec, on the other hand, which may be heard in many of Stephan Kimmig’s productions, seems to come from the funfair rather than the living room. The menacing rumbling and moaning that Verhovec lets be heard in Kimmig’s version of Mary Stuart reminds the listener at a distance of Tom Waits’s rumplemusik, while in Krimmig’s A Street Car Named Desire he lets the heat of Southern jazz glimmer.
From punk music to the theater
Fundamentally influenced by jazz, the musician Lars Wittershagen vamps up the often dance-inspired productions of Sebastian Nübling with sometimes rowdy and heavily tympanic improvisations. In the family constellation play Mother.Father.Children, Nübling lets Wittershagen not only make music and himself play along but also bring his father on stage: the two seek the optimal rhythm in a game of table tennis.
But the most versatile and terrifically busy German theater musician of recent years is the guitar virtuoso Bert Wrede. Among other projects, Wrede composed the music for Michael Thalheimer’s version of As You Like It, Martin Kusej’s grandiose The She-Devil (Weibsteufel) in Vienna and Andrea Breth’s Salzburg spectacle Crime and Punishment. His music is often only a minimalist hum, and yet the listener hears that its creator once not only performed jazz but also raged in a punk band. Wrede conceives of music as continuous improvisation, as fiddling around and sampling in a team: “In good theater music everything has to remain flexible up to the premier”, says Wrede, “and sometimes even after it”.
Naturally, some critics find that there has recently been much too much music in spoken theater. The art of drama, so maintain these fault-finders, threatens to turn into opera. And there is today one or the other director who thinks he is being tremendously defiant and courageous when he goes to work on a play absolutely without music and puristically allows only the spoken text on stage. The counter point has been formulated by musician and director Schorsch Kamerun, who in one of his productions has someone call out quite drastically and simply in the midst of all the text recitation: “Shut up, please – let’s have some music!”
is a cultural journalist for Spiegel and has been a jury member of the Berlin Theatertreffen since 2008.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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