Deutsche Oper Berlin, Berlin, Germany
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Important Info
Type: Opera
City: Berlin, Germany
Starts at: 17:00

Kasper Holten stages Wagner’s Lohengrin as a timeless political power play: Putin arm-wrestling, Putin excavating an ancient vase, Putin as a fire-fighting pilot. And, of course, the image of him with a Siberian tiger!

Putin diving, climbing, behind the wheel of a racing car and attempting to crush a frying pan. We are not privy to whether he succeeded with the frying pan, and it is irrelevant anyway, because the pose is what is important, the presentation of Putin as a hero. And the message is clear: if you want a radiant winner as your head of state, do not ask where he came from or how he came to power; he is on a mission to rescue the nation. A number of politicians who were captured on camera beaming confidently into the lens have been removed from their posts. Why? Because we were inquiring about his past and lifting the lid on unpleasant truths. “If you recognise him, he will have to withdraw from view”.

If we think of Lohengrin as the type of politician who is adept at harnessing the media, someone who surrounds himself with glorious images and grandiose myths to create a legend of himself as a messianic figure, it is not hard to see him as a smoke-and-mirrors merchant, spying an opportunity to set up a new state, a new system, a new ideology in a region of disordered, dislocated German territories. Wagner’s words and music are packed with references that allow interpretations of this kind. One instance would be the ban on asking questions. Charged with the murder of her brother, Gottfried, Elsa’s life is in danger. Lohengrin offers himself as her champion, but there are conditions: before he agrees to defend her, he offers her a quid pro quo: she will marry him and never ask him who he is. Unsurprisingly, she agrees; what other action is open to her? A real cavalier would have inverted the sequence of events. And there is another occasion when Lohengrin betrays himself as an unfair partner for Elsa – when he placates her in her fear that he will leave her, saying that everything will be fine so long as she keeps her part of the bargain. Shortly afterwards he reveals that he was planning to leave after one year and return to his homeland. He was not interested in the woman but in the position that he could secure through her. Politics underpinned his actions; Elsa was the stage on which he would stamp and gesticulate. He was conducting an election campaign in Brabant, pure and simple.

Granted, Lohengrin’s political acumen, or Machiavellianism, hardly makes him the kind of devious plotter that we find in an Iago; that role goes to Ortrud, whose aim in thwarting the youthful pretender is to shore up the old order, with her husband Telramund as head of state. But seeing the Swan Knight as a consummate politician, idolised in spite of his manifest tricks, just goes to show that manipulation to political ends is often taken to be a necessary part of statecraft. A nervous, easily-led citizenry may even place far more value on overtly hypocritical parades of resilience, vitality and strength than on integrity, virtue and utopian do-goodism.

We might be tempted to consider Lohengrin, the media hero, attractive and to deem the tussle for power a sporting one, were it not for a looming war and a gathering call to arms. In the face of the bloodthirstiness running through Wagner’s work, and given the fact that whoever prevails in the showdown will lead thousands of men off to war, making widows of their wives, and considering the phoney insistence that war is an honourable undertaking and a worthy adventure for young men, any gesture that seeks to make light of such well disseminated propaganda instantly loses any semblance of authority. In a society where war is declared and men are called to fight on the basis of mottos such as “Death or glory” and “Those not for us are against us”, the mettle of principles of political reason and discernment is being tested, whether the establishment in question is a democracy or an authoritarian state claiming to be acting in the interests of its citizens.

Elsa has grasped all this. She has seen through Lohengrin and asks penetrating questions, revealing his egoistic drive for power, even though the disappearance of Gottfried has left no successor to the Duke of Brabant and she sees no alternative for her country. If the unmasked hero wishes to remain in power, he will have to get serious and show himself to be the self-appointed people’s protector or, in other scenarios, an “unimpeachable democrat”, because from now on people are watching him. He will have to assert himself without the myth as a shield, will have to renounce the charisma of someone purporting to be guided by a higher power. Then we will look at what remains.

Premiere of this production: 28 August 1850, Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar

Lohengrin is a Romantic opera in three acts composed and written by Richard Wagner, first performed in 1850. The story of the eponymous character is taken from medieval German romance, notably the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach and its sequel, Lohengrin, written by a different author, itself inspired by the epic of Garin le Loherain. It is part of the Knight of the Swan tradition.

Venue Info

Deutsche Oper Berlin - Berlin
Location   Bismarckstraße 35

Venue's Capacity: 1698

The Deutsche Oper Berlin is an opera company located in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin, Germany. The resident building is the country's second-largest opera house and also home to the Berlin State Ballet. Since 2004 the Deutsche Oper Berlin, like the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin State Opera), the Komische Oper Berlin, the Berlin State Ballet, and the Bühnenservice Berlin (Stage and Costume Design), has been a member of the Berlin Opera Foundation.

The company's history goes back to the Deutsches Opernhaus built by the then independent city of Charlottenburg—the "richest town of Prussia"—according to plans designed by Heinrich Seeling from 1911. It opened on November 7, 1912 with a performance of Beethoven's Fidelio, conducted by Ignatz Waghalter. In 1925, after the incorporation of Charlottenburg by the 1920 Greater Berlin Act, the name of the resident building was changed to Städtische Oper (Municipal Opera).

With the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, the opera was under control of the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Minister Joseph Goebbels had the name changed back to Deutsches Opernhaus, competing with the Berlin State Opera in Mitte controlled by his rival, the Prussian minister-president Hermann Göring. In 1935, the building was remodeled by Paul Baumgarten and the seating reduced from 2300 to 2098. Carl Ebert, the pre-World War II general manager, chose to emigrate from Germany rather than endorse the Nazi view of music, and went on to co-found the Glyndebourne opera festival in England. He was replaced by Max von Schillings, who acceded to enact works of "unalloyed German character". Several artists, like the conductor Fritz Stiedry and the singer Alexander Kipnis, followed Ebert into emigration. The opera house was destroyed by a RAF air raid on 23 November 1943. Performances continued at the Admiralspalast in Mitte until 1945. Ebert returned as general manager after the war.

After the war, in what was now West Berlin, the company, again called Städtische Oper, used the nearby Theater des Westens; its opening production was Fidelio, on 4 September 1945. Its home was finally rebuilt in 1961 but to a much-changed, sober design by Fritz Bornemann. The opening production of the newly named Deutsche Oper, on 24 September, was Mozart's Don Giovanni.

Past Generalmusikdirektoren (GMD, general music directors) have included Bruno Walter, Kurt Adler, Ferenc Fricsay, Lorin Maazel, Gerd Albrecht, Jesús López-Cobos, and Christian Thielemann. In October 2005, the Italian conductor Renato Palumbo was appointed GMD as of the 2006/2007 season. In October 2007, the Deutsche Oper announced the appointment of Donald Runnicles as their next Generalmusikdirektor, effective August 2009, for an initial contract of five years. Simultaneously, Palumbo and the Deutsche Oper mutually agreed to terminate his contract, effective November 2007.

On the evening of 2 June 1967, Benno Ohnesorg, a student taking part in the German student movement, was shot in the streets around the opera house. He had been protesting against the visit to Germany by the Shah of Iran, who was attending a performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute.

In 1986 the American Berlin Opera Foundation was founded.

In April 2001, the Italian conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli died at the podium while conducting Verdi's Aida, at age 54.

In September 2006, the Deutsche Oper's Intendantin (general manager) Kirsten Harms drew criticism after she cancelled the production of Mozart's opera Idomeneo by Hans Neuenfels, because of fears that a scene in it featuring the severed heads of Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad would offend Muslims, and that the opera house's security might come under threat if violent protests took place. Critics of the decision include German Ministers and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The reaction from Muslims has been mixed — the leader of Germany's Islamic Council welcomed the decision, whilst a leader of Germany's Turkish community, criticising the decision, said:

This is about art, not about politics ... We should not make art dependent on religion — then we are back in the Middle Ages.

At the end of October 2006, the opera house announced that performances of Mozart's opera Idomeneo would then proceed. Kirsten Harms, after announcing in 2009 that she would not renew her contract beyond 2011, was bid farewell in July of that year.

Important Info
Type: Opera
City: Berlin, Germany
Starts at: 17:00