Opera in K-Town

Kaiserslautern, better known to my fellow Americans as K-Town, is a city of nearly a hundred thousand people — not counting the fifty thousand American and other NATO military personnel who are stationed nearby.

Thanks to the new InterCityExpress rail connection, Kaiserslautern is now less than two and a half hours from Paris. In the other direction it is thirty-nine minutes from Mannheim and eighty-one minutes from Frankfurt am Main.

In the theater in Kaiserslautern

Since Kaiserslautern is in the Pfalz region of Germany, a region which in English is officially referred to as “the Palatinate”, the theater is called the Pfalztheater or “Palatinate Theatre”. It was inaugurated in 1995 and is currently the second newest theater building in Germany — the newest being the new opera house in Erfurt from the year 2003.

Since 1995 the new Pfalztheater in Kaiserslautern has been the venue for up to four hundred performances a year in the three columns of musical theater (operas, operettas and musicals), spoken theater and ballet. The main auditorium has 730 seats, and there is also a smaller “workshop stage” with flexible seating for up to 200 people. The Pfalztheater has its own orchestra and chorus, as well as opera, drama and ballet ensembles. They say there are currently about three hundred people working in the theater, not counting guest artists.

Pfalztheater in Kaiserslautern

The old theater building was destroyed in a bombing raid on August 14, 1944. After the war they quickly resumed performing in what was intended as a temporary venue in an old movie theater. But this provisional venue remained in use for half a century until the new theater was finally inaugurated in 1995.

“Front” of the new theater in Kaiserslautern

That nauseous-looking reddish area in front of the theater is the roof of the parking garage. You’d think they would at least landscape it or something, but no. Since this theater was built in the 20th century, the planners’ main concern was to provide enough parking spaces for those who insist on driving to the theater in their heart-attack machines. As an afterthought they also built a rather nice theater, but because of the parking garage you can’t approach the front of the theater on foot, you have to sneak up on it from one of the sides.

This sort of thing always reminds me of a snippet of dialogue from an old Billy Wilder film called Sabrina, from the year 1958:

“After all, this is the 20th century, Father.”

“Twentieth century? Why, I could pick a century out of a hat, blindfolded, and come up with a better one.”

Theoretically no one is allowed to tread on the sacred roof of the sacred parking garage, but I wasn’t arrested or even reprimanded for doing so, so I guess in our century they aren’t so serious about that any more.

Postcard advertising Jonny spielt auf

The first opera I saw in Kaiserslautern was Jonny spielt auf by Ernst Krenek (1900-1991). This is a comic opera from the year 1926 that was hugely popular in Europe in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The name of this opera is usually translated as “Jonny strikes up”, meaning he starts to play music, as in the phrases strike up a tune or strike up the band (also used in the phrase strike up a conversation).

Which is fine, but the title also can have a second meaning in German, namely “Jonny shows off”. I expect the composer had both meanings in mind when he wrote the opera in the 1920s.

When the Nazis came into power in 1933 they immediately banned all of Krenek’s music on the grounds that it was “decadent”. The Nazis particularly disliked Jonny spielt auf because the hero was an Afro-American and the music included some jazz or swing influences.

In 1938 Krenek went into exile in the United States, where he continued composing and also taught at various universities. He became an American citizen in 1945. After the war and the end of the Nazi regime, it took many years before the Krenek’s music started making its way back into the repertoire. (This is also true of other composers of his generation, such as Korngold, Schreker and Oskar Straus. See my post on the lost generation of opera composers.)

Control panel in the theater

The staging of Jonny spielt auf in Kaiserslautern was quite funny and up-to-date. They staged it as a computer game. Jonny came in at the beginning, sat down at a computer at one side of the stage, and started playing. The game appeared on a huge screen that covered the rest of the stage. After a few minutes the screen was lifted to reveal singers in shiny vinyl costumes just like the game characters, and they went on with the story.

Despite the computer-game staging, Jonny spielt auf still has a 1920s flapster feeling about it, which is fun though it also makes the opera seem a bit dated, eight decades after its big success.

Stage entrance

Later I went back to Kaiserslautern and saw a second opera, Der König Kandaules by Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942). This is an opera that I have also seen in Cologne. It was Zemlinsky’s last opera, and it wasn’t quite finished when he died in poverty in New York in 1942.

Statues at the Pfalztheater

When you walk up to the theater from the west side you are greeted by a statue of an “African King”, and on the east side is one called “Fallen Angel”. Both are by the sculptor Gunter Stilling and are made of Carrara marble. (Carrara being a town in Italy that is best known for its marble quarries.)

My photos in this post are from 2008. I revised the text in 2020.

See more posts on Kaiserslautern, Germany.
See more posts on the composers Ernst Krenek and Alexander von Zemlinsky.


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