Korngold in Wuppertal

The Opernhaus (Opera House) in Wuppertal is on the left bank of the Wupper River in Barmen, a former industrial city which is now a district of the city of Wuppertal.

Like many other German opera houses, this one was built in the first decade of the 20th century. It was begun in 1905 and completed in 1907 — exactly the same years as the opera house in Kiel, for example.

Nearly all of these opera houses were heavily damaged by bombing during the Second World War, and the one in Wuppertal was no exception. It was re-built from 1954 to 1956 and was re-opened with a performance of a 1930s opera which had been forbidden back then by the Nazis, Mathis der Maler by Paul Hindemith.

The opera house in Wuppertal

The decline of Wuppertal as an industrial city in the late 20th century meant reduced subsidies for the city’s cultural institutions, including the opera.

At the beginning of the 21st century I knew someone who worked for the Wuppertal Opera. She told me it was frustrating because they didn’t even have enough money to fix the leaks in the roof, much less put on large-scale opera productions. From 2006 to 2009 the house was closed for a thorough renovation, and since then there have been no more complaints about a leaky roof.

Program booklet for Die tote Stadt at the Wuppertal Opera

The opera I saw in Wuppertal in 2019 was Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). This is an opera I had seen several times before, first in Altenburg in 2003, then in Hagen in 2007 and later several times in Frankfurt in 2011 and 2015, as staged by Anselm Weber.

All you loyal readers of my Bruges post The Dead City might recall that Korngold’s opera was based on the novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898). On a visit to Bruges (= Brugge), Belgium, I went around and took pictures of all the places mentioned in the novel.

Lobbies of the Wuppertal opera house on two levels

Half an hour before show time the dramaturge David Greiner gave an introductory talk in the lobbies of the Wuppertal opera house in a very informal setting. People sat or stood around in the lobbies on two levels, and he simply turned up with his microphone and spoke from halfway up the stairs, so he could be seen and heard from both levels. (In the photo, note the struts of the Wuppertal suspension railway, visible through the windows.)

He devoted nearly half his talk to explaining who Erich Wolfgang Korngold was, pointing out that he was the son of Vienna’s leading music critic at the time. His father gave him the middle name Wolfgang in hopes that he would grow up to be the Mozart of his generation, and he did in fact follow in Mozart’s footsteps to some extent, first as a child-prodigy pianist and later as a talented and popular composer.

Korngold was only twenty-three when he completed Die tote Stadt in 1920. It had two simultaneous world-premieres in Hamburg and Cologne, and went on to be one of the most successful and often-performed operas in Germany and Austria in the 1920s, only to be banned by the Nazis when they came into power in 1933. They banned it solely because Korngold was Jewish, as were most of the lost generation of opera composers whose careers were cut short by the Nazi takeover.

After the end of the war and the downfall of the Nazis, it took several decades before the works of these banned composers started re-appearing on German opera stages. This was due partly to prejudice, no doubt, and partly because these composers had simply been forgotten. But in Korngold’s case there was an additional reason, as the dramaturge David Greiner pointed out in his talk. He said that in those years the German public drew a strict distinction between serious ‘E-Music’ and trivial ‘U-Music’. Korngold’s music was consigned to the latter category because it ‘sounded like film music’ — which was no accident because Korngold was practically the inventor of film music. He had moved to Hollywood at the request of the director Max Reinhardt just as the film industry was completing the transition from silent films to talkies, and his film scores set the standards for film music in the decades to come. Altogether he wrote the scores for sixteen Hollywood films, two of which earned him Oscars in 1936 and 1938.

Upper and lower lobbies in the Wuppertal opera house

Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt is about a man, Paul, who is in a state of perpetual grief over the death of his wife, Marie. But then he meets a dancer, Marietta, who strongly resembles his dead wife. In the opera, these two are both sung and played by the same soprano, Susanne Serfling (whom I remembered from an earlier phase of her career when she was an ensemble member in Darmstadt).

In his talk, the dramaturge advised us not to worry too much about whether she was meant to be Marie or Marietta in any particular scene, because “it’s all the same woman, and all in Paul’s head.”

This advice had the opposite effect on me, and for the first half of the opera I had no trouble deciding which woman she was supposed to be, since she had two different blond wigs, a straight-haired serious one for Marie and a curly-haired foppish one for the dancer Marietta. But in the second half things got more complicated, as Paul progressively lost whatever tenuous grip he might have had on reality.

Applause after Die tote Stadt in Wuppertal

Unlike the other productions I have seen, the Wuppertal production of Die tote Stadt does not have a happy end. In the other productions, as in the original libretto, Paul’s murder of Marietta turns out to have been just a dream, and she leaves his house cheerfully the next morning, having returned to fetch her umbrella and roses. In Wuppertal it’s the other way around: the murder is what ‘really’ happens, and the cheerful morning-after scene is just a brief pipe-dream.

In the 2018/2019 season there have been performances of Die tote Stadt in six German opera houses, as listed in the Operabase website: Berlin (Komische Oper), Hamburg, Saarbrücken, Bremen, Dresden and Wuppertal. There were also two productions of it in France (in Toulouse and Limoges), one in Italy (Teatro alla Scala in Milan), one in the Netherlands (Nederlandse Reisopera) and one in Poland (Warsaw).

For the 2019/2020 season four German opera houses have scheduled performances of Die tote Stadt: Kiel, Munich, Hamburg and Schwerin. Also there will be new productions of it at the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki and at the National Moravian-Silesian Theater in Ostrava, Czech Republic.

My photos and text in this post are from 2019.

See more posts on the composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957).

2 thoughts on “Korngold in Wuppertal”

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