The opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) happened to be playing on a very grey, rainy and unseasonably cold weekend in May 2007 in the dead-looking city of Hagen, at the edge of Germany’s Ruhr District.
Hagen has over two hundred thousand inhabitants, but hardly any of them were out walking around in this kind of weather. (Actually it’s a nice enough town when the sun comes out. I was here once before, forty-five years earlier on a bicycle trip, and it was fine that time.)
Korngold’s opera takes place not in Hagen but in the Belgian city of Brugge, which is known as Brügge in German and Bruges in French. The opera is based on the novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898). (See my blog post about the city of Bruges and the novel.)
Korngold was only twenty-three when he completed this opera 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.
In later years, especially after he was forced to emigrate to escape from the Nazis, Korngold became one of Hollywood’s first elite composers of film music. He was awarded two Oscars for his film scores in 1936 and 1938.
In the Hagen production, Korngold’s opera was staged in the style of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo from the year 1957 (which happens to be the year of Korngold’s death), with soprano Dagmar Hesse made up to look very much like the actress Kim Novak from the film.
This has been done before, I’m told, but it was new to me, and I thought it worked remarkably well. Both the film and the opera have to do with a man obsessed with the memory of a long-dead woman, and in both he finds another woman who looks exactly the same.
A few years ago I saw the same opera in a different production at another small German theater, namely in Altenburg (Thüringen). And I have seen it several times in Frankfurt am Main in 2011 and 2015, as staged by Anselm Weber.
The Municipal Theater in Hagen, which was inaugurated in 1911, is one of the sixty-nine German opera houses I have been to so far, as listed in my post Sixty-nine opera Houses in Germany. (I hope to get around to the other seventeen in the next few years, before their funding dries up.)
The four Jugendstil statues on the facade, by a local sculptress named Milly Steger, are meant to represent the muses. They were controversial at the time because of their nudity and large breasts, but now look rather pale and abstract after a century of exposure to the elements.
Like many other small city theaters in Germany, the theater in Hagen is threatened periodically with sizable budget cuts. When I was there in 2007 they were asking the spectators to sign petitions to save the theater — which must have worked because ten years later the theater is still going strong.
My photos in this post are from 2007. I revised the text in 2017 and 2019.
See more posts on the composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957).