Operas in the Bockenheimer Depot

This barn-like structure in the Frankfurt district of Bockenheim, near the old university campus, served for many decades as a depot for streetcars. I can remember when the whole place was full of tracks, and they drove the streetcars in at night when they weren’t being used.

Now the tracks are long gone, and the depot is used as an alternative venue for experimental theater and opera productions.

Among the many memorable operas at the Bockenheimer Depot was the 2004 production of Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis) by Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944).

This is an opera that Ullmann wrote in the 1940s when he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. He was even allowed to rehearse it with imprisoned musicians and singers, but after the dress rehearsal the Nazis banned it because they finally realized that it had a strong anti-war and anti-Nazi message.

Ullmann and his librettist Peter Kien were immediately shipped off to Auschwitz, where they were murdered in 1944. One of Ullmann’s fellow prisoners buried the score and the text of the opera. Years later it was dug up, and was first performed in Amsterdam in 1975.

The emperor in this opera is a dictator who is so brutal that even Death goes on strike and refuses to let anyone die. This causes widespread panic because life under the dictatorship is so senseless that no one wants to go on living.

The 2004 production of Der Kaiser von Atlantis in the Bockenheimer Depot was conducted by Johannes Debus and directed by Andrea Schwalbach, both of whom have come as featured guests to the VHS Opern-Gespräche.

Bockenheimer Depot set up for Piero – Ende der Nacht by Jens Joneleit 2008

Composer Jens Joneleit at Frankfurt OperaTalk 2008

One of the advantages of the Bockenheimer Depot for experimental staging is that the entire hall can be completely rearranged to suit the needs of different productions. For the composition Piero – Ende der Nacht by Jens Joneleit, the audience sat on two long constructions of metal bleachers, facing each other. The singers performed in the middle and the orchestra was located under the bleachers, so different sections of the orchestra were louder or softer depending on where you were sitting.

Applause after La finta giardiniera at the Bockenheimer Depot 2009

To this day I confuse Mozart’s two ‘finta’ operas, because they were performed three years apart (both in June) in the Bockenheimer Depot in lively productions using the same stage set by Herbert Murauer.

La finta semplice (The fake innocent) was Mozart’s fourth opera, composed when he was twelve years old. The Frankfurt production in June 2006 was conducted by Julia Jones and directed by Christoph Loy. Among the singers were Jenny Carlstedt, Britta Stallmeister and Florian Plock.

Three years later Katharina Thoma (in the red dress in my photo) jumped in at short notice as stage director of La finta giardiniera (‘The pretend garden-girl’ or ‘The fake gardener’), Mozart’s tenth opera, composed when he was nineteen. Her staging really captured the spirit of the opera, with tenor Jussi Myllys (4th from left) and soprano Brenda Rae (5th from left) flying through the air while singing a love duet, and later trying to split up but discovering they were tethered together.

Other outstanding productions at the Bockenheimer Depot have included three operas by Benjamin Britten, Curlew River, Owen Wingrave and The Rape of Lucretia, and three by Georg Friedrich Händel, Teseo, Radamisto and Rinaldo.

My photos in this post are from 2004, 2008 and 2009. I revised the text in 2018.

See also: L’Orfeo in the Bockenheimer Depot
and Cavalli and Wagner in Dortmund.

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