This ‘Hessian State Museum in Darmstadt’ is a general-purpose museum that was closed for a total refurbishment of the building from 2007 until 2014. I haven’t been there since it reopened, but I recall from earlier visits that it had a wide variety of exhibits on natural history, regional history, art, culture, you name it.
One exhibit I particularly remember (but never took any photos of) was about the German composer Friedrich von Flotow (1812-1883), who spent the final years of his life in Darmstadt. Towards the end of his life he was nearly blind because of cataracts in both eyes, a condition that was untreatable at the time but today can be cured through routine ten-minute operation. The exhibit included the huge thick glasses he had to wear, and his last attempts at writing and composing even though he could hardly see anymore.
Flotow belonged to a generation of German composers who lived and worked in the shadow of their overpowering contemporary Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Wagner was a year younger than Flotow, and they died within three weeks of each other in 1883.
Of the twenty-nine operas that Flotow wrote, only one is still sometimes performed, namely Martha, a light-hearted “romantic-comic opera” with catchy melodies.
Martha was the most-often-performed opera in Germany in the second half of the 19th century, but then in the 20th century it gradually went out of style and developed a reputation for being stuffy and old-fashioned. Now in the 21st century it seems to be making something of a comeback, as creative stage directors take it on and bring it back to life.
I have seen Martha in five different productions so far. The first was in Darmstadt in 1996. I later attended the premieres of two different productions of Martha in Detmold (sixteen years apart). More recently, I have seen Martha several times in Frankfurt in a brilliant production by Katherina Thoma, and once in Annaberg-Buchholz in 2018.
From the Detmold 2002 program booklet, I learned that the world premiere of Martha took place in 1848 in Dresden and was conducted by none other than Richard Wagner — who hated it. Because Martha was a huge success, Wagner had to conduct it again and again, which made him hate it even more. I think it would have been funny to see the turgid, ultra-serious Wagner conducting such a light-hearted opera.
The story of Martha takes place in England, but the text is in German. One of the lyrical high points is Martha’s song “The last rose of summer”, based on a much older song in English by Thomas Moore. An article on “The secret of the rose” in the Detmold 2002 program booklet points out that in several languages, the word rose is an anagram of eros.
My photos in this post are from 2005, 2008 and 2018. I revised the text in 2024.