Operetta revival in Berlin “Jazz, dirt, sex and the subversive”

Paul Abraham's “Ball im Savoy” of 1932 caused the restart of the success of the operetta at the Comic Opera in Berlin and it presents already Dagmar Manzel (in the middle) as a new star of the genre.
Paul Abraham's “Ball im Savoy” of 1932 caused the restart of the success of the operetta at the Comic Opera in Berlin and it presents already Dagmar Manzel (in the middle) as a new star of the genre. | Photo: Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

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 entertainment

It 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.

Burden of history

The music and literary scholar Kevin Clarke explained how the newly proclaimed ideal of “völkisch operetta” was implemented beginning in 1933. “Foreign rhythms” such as were found in jazz were to be eliminated from now on. Sentimentalising operetta was to convey “strength through joy” to the Aryan people. In his lecture on “Ethnic-Communal Ideology and Operetta in the Nazi State”, Matthias Kauffmann differentiated a common notion of the nature of Nazi propaganda. It is a misunderstanding, he argued, to see in this propaganda only brainwashing that was imposed on an innocent people from above. On the contrary, Nazi propaganda also adopted those ideological slogans that were already in circulation at the regulars’ table in pubs. And the elements of National Socialist operetta, Kauffmann added, were not freshly minted by the Nazis. They took up the familiar topoi of operetta like exoticism, eroticism and celebrity worship and ideologically recoded them. That rupture and continuity in the history of German operetta are by no means as easy to make out as it seems at first glance was one of the most significant findings of symposium. Until very recently, the reception and performance practice of the genre has been stamped by that toothless conservative aesthetics into they fell during the Nazi era.

Trend or more?

Kosky has set out to thoroughly revise this image of the operetta and to restore what was once expelled from the genre. This is, in his words, “jazz, dirt, sex and the subversive”. He is primarily driven not by an historical interest but rather by an attraction to the aesthetic qualities that he discovered in the Berlin operetta of the Weimar period. Asked what the continuing appeal of these works consists in, the theatre scholar Stefan Frey, who has published books on Franz Lehár, Emmerich Kálmán and Leo Fall, replied that it is precisely the openness and heterogeneity of the operetta, in contrast to the opera, which offers a wealth of opportunities for both witty and entertaining updates. Barrie Kosky’s productions have shown the way. Now it will be interesting to see whether the renaissance of the operetta, which has been launched at the Comic Opera, will radiate to other stages.