The opera I saw at the City Theater in Münster (Westfalen) was The Cunning Little Vixen (in German Das schlaue Füchslein) by the Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928). This is a whimsical opera about an older man who falls in love with a young female — in this case a fox, which makes her even more inaccessible than if she had been human.
Janáček was nearly 70 when he composed The Cunning Little Vixen. At the time he was in love with a much younger woman, with whom he exchanged letters.
The last scene of the opera, in which the old forester dies peacefully amid the sounds of his beloved forest, was played and sung at the composer’s funeral in 1928.
Unlike Mozart, who started writing operas when he was eleven, Janáček got off to a late start as an opera composer. His first really successful opera, Jenufa, didn’t come out until he was fifty, and he really hit his stride between the ages of sixty-six and seventy-four when he composed The Excursions of Mr. Broucek, Katja Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Macropulous Case and From the House of the Dead. (All of these are still performed, and I have seen all of them repeatedly.)
Janáček made a habit of sitting in the park in his home city of Brno and noting down what people said in everyday conversation, not only the words but also the language rhythms and melodies. He used these notes when he composed his operas, so his music closely follows the rhythms of the Czech language. For this reason, his operas are often performed in the original Czech, even in places like Frankfurt where hardly anyone in the cast or audience speaks or understands this language.
In Münster, however, The Cunning Little Vixen was sung in German.
While he was composing The Cunning Little Vixen, Janáček not only listened to people speaking Czech, but also went out to the woods and noted down various sounds that he heard, in musical notation, so in this opera the instruments in the orchestra often imitate woodsy and animal sounds.
At the Münster City Theater I also saw a play: Unter Eis (Under Ice) by Falk Richter, a German playwright who also stages operas — he was the stage director for a Frankfurt production of Elektra, by Richard Strauss, for example.
The play Unter Eis is about consultants, people who are paid to visit business companies and other organizations and advise them about how they could reorganize themselves to become more efficient. This usually involves firing some of the employees and putting more pressure on the rest.
Before I retired I had dealings with consultants on several occasions, so I can confirm that Falk Richter has captured exactly the way these people think and talk — but compressed into one hundred minutes, so they sound even more grotesque on stage than in real life.
Did I say on stage??
In Münster they didn’t perform it on a stage, but in the theater café, where we forty spectators sat at tables arranged in a long rectangle, as at a business meeting. Two of the actors sat with us at the tables, initially, and the other two were at the two ends of the room.
German consultants tend to use lots of English-language jargon when they speak, so the program booklet includes a glossary to explain such terms as BCG, bootcamp, bottom line-effect, case study, coach, core values, entrepreneurial spirit, life-master-plan, point of aggression, personal effectiveness, pressure handling, senior consultant, etc.
Unter Eis has also been made into an opera, but I unfortunately missed it when it was performed in Frankfurt, so I was very glad that I could at least see the play in Münster.
Münster’s old Lortzing-Theater (named after the composer Albert Lortzing, who was active as an actor and singer in Münster from 1826 to 1833) was destroyed in the bombings of World War II.
After the war they decided not to reconstruct the old theater. Instead, four architects were commissioned to design and build a new one. I had actually heard of one of these architects, namely Werner Ruhnau, since he was the one who later built the opera house “MiR” in Gelsenkirchen.
In Münster it turned out that on the site of the destroyed theater one wall of the old building was still standing. Instead of tearing down that remaining wall, the architects decided to preserve it and incorporate it into their new theater. So the old wall is still there today, as sort of a conversation piece in the courtyard of the modern building. The new theater, with 955 seats, was opened in 1954.
My photos in this post are from 2009. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: Seventy-one opera houses in Germany.