My recent visit to Weimar was ‘between the years’, as the Germans would say (meaning in the week between Christmas and New Year’s), so the square in front of the German National Theater (Deutsches Nationaltheater = DNT) was filled with an ice-skating rink and some remaining stands from the Christmas Market.
Until 1918, Weimar was the capital of the Duchy of Sachsen-Weimar. Of the many generations of Dukes and later Grand-Dukes who ruled over a constantly shifting hodge-podge of real estate in what is now the Land Thüringen, the most famous was Carl August (1757-1828), who persuaded the author Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832) to come and live in Weimar. Goethe and Carl August became close friends, and Goethe held a number of official positions in the ducal government. For a while he was Minister of Finance, and for many years he was the director of the court theater.
From the little booklet Licht und Schatten (Light and Shadow), a “small history of the DNT and the State Orchestra Weimar” (which I bought at the box office for all of € 1.50), I learned that Goethe was not at all enthusiastic about taking charge of the theater. “Because of his various state offices and literary work, Goethe had other interests besides running a theater. But the Duke managed to persuade him.” (page 8)
After the death of Carl August in 1828, the court theater “always depended strongly on the whims and demands of each successive ruler.” (page 14)
In some phases the orchestra was most important, particularly after Franz Liszt was hired as court music director in 1848, and later when Richard Strauss became the orchestra conductor in 1889.
In the early 20th century, the court theater’s programming “acquired noticeable reactionary-nationalistic tendencies” (page 24). After the last Duke was forced to abdicate in 1918, the court theater first became the Landestheater zu Weimar ‘State Theater in Weimar’. A year later, the name was changed to Deutsches Nationaltheater zu Weimar (‘German National Theater in Weimar’), although “the motives for this somewhat pompous name change are no longer comprehensible today” (page 25). Perhaps the theater director was “hoping for higher subsidies” or for increased prestige in competition with the more important theaters in Berlin. “In any case, the idea of a German national stage was not new and had been discussed again and again in national-conservative circles.” (page 28)
The same year, 1919, the theater building was used as the assembly hall for the National Assembly, which negotiated and adopted “Germany’s first democratic constitution”. This is why the German government in the 1920s and early thirties is often called ‘The Weimar Republic’, until it was taken over by the Nazis in 1933. (But Weimar was not the capital of Germany in this period, just the site of the constitutional convention. The capital was still Berlin.)
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, “non-aryan” ensemble members were quickly fired, and the theater program was dominated by Nazi dramas “as well as a classical repertoire, although especially Schiller’s dramas were staged from a radically nationalistic perspective.” (page 33)
In the 1950s, after the founding of the German Democratic Republic, the theater program included numerous “soviet revolutionary dramas” because “once again the DNT was at the forefront of systematic efforts to establish a state program with the help of art.” (page 42)
In later decades the program became more varied, however, and especially the opera division flourished under the direction of Harry Kupfer (from 1966 to 1973) and Erhard Warneke (from 1973 to 1999).
(Harry Kupfer went on to be the director of the Komische Oper Berlin for many years. He continued to be active as a stage director until shortly before his death in 2019 at age 84. I have seen four of his productions at the Frankfurt Opera in recent years: Pfitzner’s Palestrina in 2009, Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust in 2010, Prokofiev’s The Gambler in 2013 and Glinka’s Ivan Sussanin in 2015, with Sir John Tomlinson in the title role.)
The opera I saw in Weimar in 2018 was Un ballo in maschera (A masked ball) by Giuseppe Verdi, sung in the original Italian with German subtitles. To my surprise, they really did have subtitles below the stage (between the stage and the orchestra pit), rather than surtitles above the stage as in most other opera houses. In my photo of the orchestra pit, the black band above the harp and below the curtain was where the subtitles appeared.
In Weimar, as in many other opera houses, there is a net stretched out above the back half of the orchestra pit. (You can see it in the photo.) This is to prevent props from the stage from falling into the orchestra. I have seen various props fall off and get caught in the net, most recently a black top-hat that one of the chorus members was wearing, but the worst was at a performance of Reimann’s Medea in Frankfurt a few years ago when a large boulder came loose, rolled down the stage and crashed into the orchestra pit. Since the bolder was made of paper-mâché it wasn’t as heavy as a real boulder, but it fell with enough force to damage the instrument it fell on, a double bass. Fortunately, no people were injured when this happened. I don’t think they had a net over the orchestra pit at that time, or if they did it wasn’t strong enough to stop the boulder.
From where I was sitting in Weimar I had a good view of the harpist, a lovely lady who sat motionless and expressionless like a sphinx for most of the evening. Verdi, like most composers, is rather sparing in his use of the harp, so as not to blunt its effectiveness through over-familiarity. In Un ballo in Maschera the harpist has three main scenes, twice as the accompanist for lovely arias and once in an ensemble with the rest of the orchestra. The only time I saw the harpist change her facial expression was after one of the arias, when she smiled in response to a compliment from the solo bassoonist, who was sitting next to her.
Un ballo in maschera is a mature Verdi opera, completed when the composer was forty-six years old in 1859. It is based on an event that really happened, the assassination of the Swedish King Gustav III at a masked ball at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm at midnight on March 16, 1792. Verdi originally wanted to call the opera Gustavo III and have it take place in Stockholm, just like the historical event. But the censors refused to allow this, because they deemed it too dangerous to show a king being killed on the stage.
Eight years earlier, Verdi had had a similar problem with his opera Rigoletto, when the censors forced him to change the King of France into the Duke of Mantua. In the case of Un ballo in Maschera, the King of Sweden eventually was turned into a British colonial administrator and the setting was changed from Stockholm in 1792 to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1600. Verdi eventually gave in and agreed to this change, even though Boston didn’t even exist in 1600 (the first small settlement was founded there in 1630), but Verdi’s librettist Antonio Somma continued to find the change ridiculous and refused to let the libretto be published under his name.
My favorite production of Verdi’s Masked Ball is still Claus Guth’s Frankfurt staging, in which he portrayed Riccardo as a 21st century politician running for re-election. Oscar, the page boy, was Riccardo’s officious head secretary. Ulrica, the gypsy fortune teller, was a Turkish cleaning lady who used a shaker of white cleansing powder to make a circle on the carpet where she invoked the Devil.
Eva-Maria Höckmayr’s staging in Weimar was completely different, but equally valid. In her interpretation, masks appeared not only in the scene of the masked ball itself, but also in some of the earlier scenes when characters were concealing their identities or motives. All the people on stage had masks mounted on sticks that could be held in front of their faces, or not, depending on the situation. Sometimes people traded masks, and in one particularly effective scene when all the soloists and the entire chorus were on stage at once, they quickly passed their masks from one person to the next in time with the music. They must have practiced this for hours until they could do it smoothly.
Like most European opera houses, the DNT in Weimar has no particular dress code. As you can see from this photo of the lobby at intermission, some of the men are wearing suits and ties, some not. But nobody is wearing any sort of formal attire such as tuxedos or evening gowns, as you sometimes see in films that purport to show an evening at the opera.
The DNT in Weimar was my 65th German opera house, out of the seventy-one I have been to so far.
The bench by the bicycle stands in front of the stage entrance is labelled Schauplatz, which is sort of a pun in German. It literally means ‘look-place’ so on the bench it could be taken to mean a place to sit down and look around, but in the theater it also means the setting of a play or opera, i.e. the place where the story is supposed to be happening.
My photos in this post are from the end of 2018. I wrote the text in 2019.
See also: The new opera house in Erfurt, 25 km from Weimar.