Operetta revival in Berlin “Jazz, dirt, sex and the subversive”
Since Barrie Kosky took over the directorship of the Comic Opera in Berlin, things have been astir. The bustling Australian has called it quits with the serious muse. And he has thus touched the nerve of the times, which seem to be ripe again for the operetta.
Barrie Kosky has declared a new era of lightness at the Comic Opera (Komische Oper Berlin). Since the beginning of his directorship in the summer of 2012, he has been unearthing operettas, and by preference those that were first performed in Berlin of the 1920s. So far his most convincing productions have been Paul Abraham’s Ball im Savoy (Ball at the Savoy), with which he opened the revival of the genre, and Oscar Strauss’s Eine Frau, die weiß, was sie will (A Woman Who Know What She Wants), which already transported the audience into standing ovations at its première in February 2015. His shrill, garish stagings have nothing to do with the dusty conventionality that is usually associated with this genre. Instead, he uninhibitedly mixes delight in kitsch with virtuoso wit. Kosky’s operetta productions with the actress Dagmar Manzel, the Pfister Sibs, the musical performer Katharine Mehrling and the actor Max Hopp have become cult in the capital. And on-stage foolery, earworms and double entendre have become the new trademark of the Comic Opera.
Scholarship and entertainmentIt therefore goes without saying that the scholarly symposium organized by the Comic Opera on the Art of the Surface – Operetta between Bravura and Banality was not about to be a dry-as-dust affair, but rather one designed to entertain its audience. For example, Katharine Mehrling donned a pair of intellectual specs, lolled lasciviously on a grand piano to the tune of “Theodor jazz” and spoofed particularly cryptically formulated excerpts from Adorno’s writings in broad Hessian dialect. It was funny – but also a bit cheap. For to stylize Adorno into a bogeyman, whose criticism of jazz and the relaxed muse is supposed to have cemented the unfortunate cleavage of music into the spheres of “serious” and “entertainment”, falls very short of the mark.
In a panel discussion of “serious and entertainment music”, the participants were one in noting that the separation of the spheres has been carried out more stringently in Germany than in other countries. Here Kosky sees the continuing effect of the brutal devastation that the genre of sophisticated entertainment art suffered at the hands of the Nazis. For the Berlin operetta and the jazz operetta that enjoyed success in the 1920s and 30s at the Metropol Theatre, the predecessor of what is now the Comic Opera, was, with some exceptions, an art form shaped by Jewish artists. Its main figures were driven into exile – for instance, the singer Fritzi Massary and the composer Paul Abraham – or murdered.