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There are many ways to stage an opera. In fact, part of my research this summer has been about these different staging methods, exploring how different opera companies use innovative — and often controversial — productions to draw in audiences and get people talking about the (some say) dying art form.

But at the same time, there are also many bad ways to stage an opera. I was (un)fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see one such difficult production in Berlin last week.

As part of an epic 10 day visit in the once and former and current capital of the German republic, I took in Beethoven’s one and only opera, “Fidelio,” at the Komische Oper Berlin, one of three opera houses in Berlin.

And said production, for a variety of reasons that will be laid out in the following blog post, was very, very bad.

It may have been the steamy July evening on which the opera was presented — the night of the World Cup semi-final between Germany and Spain, which Germany happened to lose. It may have been the work itself — an unusual and sometimes clumsy opera that has been published in many different versions, many of which fail to fix the opera’s narrative flaws. It might have been the opera house — the least prestigious of Berlin’s three state-funded houses, known for its bizarre stagings of mostly German works.

But no matter what the initial reason, the conclusion I must come to is this: “Fidelio,” as presented by the Komische Oper Berlin in June and July of 2010, was not good.

The opera details the trials and tribulations of Leonora, wife of Spanish political prisoner Florestan, and her efforts to free her beloved from the corrupt prison of the evil Don Pizarro and avoid detection as she disguises herself as male prison worker Fidelio.

The Komische Oper Berlin decided to go out on the proverbial limb in their staging of the work and set it in what looked mostly like a junk yard, replete with a big, metal dumpster full of trash. (Many of the reviews I read — or rather, had my German friend Tim read to me — mentioned the trash as indicative of the work as a whole).

Okay, you might say, so you’re setting this in a junk yard. That’s kind of creative. I buy that.

But no. Do not check out of that opera setting store just yet. The Komische Oper decided to take their kind of decent idea and murder it horribly, bringing on actors in costumes from various time periods and revolutionary struggles, making any conclusions about the production’s modern tendencies misplaced or just wrong.

Most of the actors were okay, and some were better than others, but the direction called for such unusual and unfortunate things— none of the main cast left the stage after entering for the first time, melting into the piles of trash when not involved in the action, playing with weird, headless mannequins scattered about the stage and making exasperated hand gestures when things got slow. Maybe it was supposed to be innovative, but this constant presence mostly just came off as annoying.

The soprano who sang Leonora did not have the greatest voice, to say  the least, and the direction called for her to fall down — a lot. Anytime things got rough for Leonora — she got tired, people asked her questions, five minutes passed — she would collapse and curl up into the fetal position. She even delivered a normally moving Act II aria from this position, straining her already poor voice and making the aria kind of unnecessarily comical.

I could go on, but know this: the production was not good — it was comically bad, actually — but even so, it was helpful for my project. The people in the audience with me seemed to really enjoy the production, and the fact that a pretty large number of people managed to show up for a unpopular opera on a night when the national soccer team was playing a big important game says a lot about the cultural relevance of the art form in Europe.

And bad opera is still, after all, opera.

Of course, I did a lot of other things in Berlin with my friend Tim. We biked along canals, swam in hidden lakes, stayed out all night and watched the sun rise over East Berlin at a club that also featured a beach and pool, heard crazy underground music at a secret amateur open mic, ate delicious food – DONER KEBAB — saw movies, cooked a lot, drank coffee and generally enjoyed each other’s company.

I was reminded how much I absolutely LOVE Berlin — the people, the U/S-Bahn, the food, the huge sprawling crazy multi-generational architectural scheme, the silliness of the language — and it was really fantastic to be back there for a relaxing week with Tim.

(Tim, a former Cranbrook classmate, is spending his year of federal public service in Berlin, looking after shut-ins and generally being awesome.)

But all good weeks and bad operas must end, and so I hopped on the Deutsche Bahn rail service yesterday morning, riding the rails — and getting nearly completely lost on a random line in the middle of Bavaria — all the way to Bayreuth, Bavaria, home of famed German composer Richard Wagner and the yearly festival celebrating his work. I’m only here for the weekend — Monday, I leave for Milano, Italy — but I was lucky enough to get access to the festival. (More on that in the next post, coming soon!)

This post is long and rambling and probably reflects the fact that I slept too much today and spent the entire day listening to obscure German opera without context or subtitles, so I’ll end it here.

Catch you in Italia!

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