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Komische Oper’s Barrie Kosky on Weimar radicalism

INTERVIEW! With his production of Weimar's last operetta "Frühlingsstürme" playing now at Komische Oper, we met the Oper's intendant and chief director Barrie Kosky to talk reviving the piece after 87 years and the lost legacy of Jewish culture.

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Photo by Jan Windszus. Barrie Kosky’s production of Frühlingsstürme plays at Komische Oper, Mitte, next on Feb 23, 18:00.

Barrie Kosky has a soft spot for lost operettas from the Weimar Republic, from Paul Abraham’s Ball im Savoy to Oscar Straus’s Die Perlen der Cleopatra. For his latest production, the Australian-born director is re-staging Jaromír Weinberger’s Frühlingsstürme (Spring Storms). The operetta is often regarded as the Weimar Republic’s last: its premiere took place just 10 days before the Nazis seized power in January 1933 and it was quickly banned in March of that year, never to be performed again. After 87 years, Kosky is giving the piece a new life.

How did you discover Früh­lingsstürme?

I’d heard about the operetta about 10 years ago when I went to see Weinberger’s big, world­wide success Schwanda and loved it. Someone told me he had written an operetta for Richard Tauber and I found that interesting. Then, about six or seven years ago, when we were going through lists of unknown op­erettas that had not been performed since 1933, I came across the name again. We found a piano excerpt but not the full score. We started a two-year-long Sherlock Holmes investi­gation to see if the orchestra parts existed somewhere in the world.

What happened to the origi­nal score? Was it burnt by the Nazis?

Probably. And as it was only performed in the Admiralspalast, no other opera houses had the scores. That’s all interesting, but I wouldn’t have done the piece if I didn’t think the music was also fabulous. Our investigations yielded no orchestra parts but like a lot of those operet­tas, the piano score sometimes has the original instrumentation listed. Norbert Biermann, a professor at the UdK, then re-orchestrated it.

You have a thing for lost operet­tas. Why is that?

I’m interested in the sadness and horror of 1933. An entire branch of the German music theatre history was simply chopped off and it never grew back. During the 14 years of the Weimar Repub­lic, there was a creative explosion which was so radical in comparison to what was happening in the rest of the world. Not just with music, theatre and visual arts but also architecture, urban design and social criticism. The fact that Magnus Hirschfeld opened his Institute of Sex Research in Berlin and started a discussion on trans identity was unbeliev­able. And these operettas were the soundtrack to those years!

Is it our collective responsi­bility to discover the Jewish culture lost through National Socialism?

Part of my mission in the last 10 years has been to convince the German audiences and artists that this is not Jew­ish music culture. This is not even Jewish-German culture. This was German culture. That’s very im­portant, because it’s easy to engage with Jewish culture and feel sad and unhappy and say what happened was terrible. The audience sits there and feels guilt. But I’m not doing this as a guilt project for German audi­ences. I want to celebrate pieces for their greatness.

Jaromír Weinberger, a Jewish-Czech composer, was hugely successful in the Weimar Re­public. What happened to his career after the Nazis rose to power?

It was a disaster. He went to America, where he wrote some pieces and taught, and then suffered from a brain tumour. He was in such agony from this disease and felt so dislocated working in America and no longer having the career he had. When he was writing Schwanda, he was the world’s number one opera composer. He eventually committed suicide. I find it so moving and aw­ful: he was beginning to experiment with an interesting new form in 1933 and could have had another 20 or 30 years of working life before him. So what have we lost? The same ques­tion applies to other Jewish composers of the time: what would Kurt Weill have written after The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny? Would Schönberg have ever finished Moses and Aron if he’d stayed in Berlin?

How was Weinberger experimenting with form?

By 1932, a number of Jewish operetta composers were writing pieces that weren’t just number-dialogue-number in the Offenbach form. They were incorporating elements of classical music into their operettas. While Kurt Weill and other composers were getting more jazzy, the Jazz operetta composers like Kálmán, Abraham and Weinberger were getting more operettic. So there was this wonderful cross-fertilisation. There are moments in Frühlingsstürme which sound like pure Puccini. It’s like Berlin verismo, which is very interesting. At the same time, it also sounds like early Hollywood film music, which was also written by Jews who had emigrated before the Nazis gained power. So it’s a very interesting form in that it still is an operetta, it’s still light and playful, but there’s a serious spy-drama happening throughout. It’s a cross between the screwball comedy of Ernst Lubitsch and the film noir of Fritz Lang. But I’ve put a show number in, because it’s Berlin so you need some feathers.

The AfD is putting increased pressure on state-funded cultural institutions in Germany. Was this a motivation for giving Wein­berger’s operetta a new life? Is it a statement?

No, I am vehemently opposed to saying we’re dancing on the edge of a new volcano. Just because Babylon Berlin has been a success on Netflix does not mean that we are living in a re-run of the Weimar Republic. That was then, this is now. I think that I personally, as a gay Jewish Australian artist, I am more of a statement against the AfD than me putting on Frühlingsstürme is.

In the Weimar Republic, many cultural institutions were run by Jews. Today, you are one of the only Jewish intendants in Berlin. Does Germany need more Jewish representation in its cultural institutions?

When you consider that we’re about to have a city with Kirill Petrenko, Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Jurowski, three Jewish conductors, it’s almost a return back to the 1920s Berlin of Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, where there were many very present Jewish conductors. But I think it’s more important there are more women intendants than there are more Jewish intendants, if we had a choice.

Berlin’s a city that, until recently at least, had a Jewish museum run by a non-Jew. Do you find that problematic?

I’m vehemently opposed to the idea that the only person who can run a Jewish museum is a Jew. I think that’s a dreadful idea. Jewish culture is not like Afro-American culture. It would be ridiculous for a white person to run a museum on the history of slavery, as it would be ridiculous for a heterosexual person to run a gay and lesbian museum. Jewish history and culture is such a diaspora culture anyway. It’s connected with the cultural and historical aspects of so many non-Jewish themes than you cannot compare it to skin-colour or sexuality.

You also have the honour of following in Robert Wilson’s footsteps to direct a new production of Brecht’s Dreigroschenoper at the Berliner Ensemble in January 2020. How did that come about?

The Dreigroschenoper has been on my list for 30 years. It’s essentially the same as when Katharina Wagner asked me to put on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Bayreuth. If I’m going to do the Meistersinger, then it’s going to be in Bayreuth. Similarly, if I’m going to do the Dreigroschenoper, then it’s going to be at the theatre where it first premiered in 1928. Wenn schon, denn schon. I know the intendant Oliver Reese from when he was in Frankfurt and I did Merchant of Venice for him. He’s been wanting me to come to the Berliner Ensemble for years. Then there was one of those fantastic coincidences where the theatre Gods decided for me: the slot to do the Dreigroschenoper is immediately after I will be doing Mahagonny at the Komische Oper, so it will be a four-month Kurt Weill period for me. I love Robert Wilson and particularly his production of the Dreigroschenoper but my work is very different from his.

Frühlingsstürme | Komische Oper, Mitte. Feb 23, 18:00 and Mar 1, 19:00.