Two Marthas in Detmold

Detmold is a city of fewer than 75,000 people which inherited its theater, but not much else, from the former Principality of Lippe. This tiny principality had Detmold as its ‘capital city’ for centuries until the last ruling prince, Leopold IV, was forced to abdicate at the end of the First World War in 1918.

“Built in the war years 1914/15 under Leopold IV”

The first court theater in Detmold was built in 1825 and burned to the ground in 1912. The current theater was built “in the war years 1914/15 under Leopold IV”, as the inscription on the façade tells us.

Painting in the entrance hall, showing a scene from act 4 of Puccini’s Manon Lescault

Today the Landestheater Detmold has three divisions: opera, spoken drama and dance. Aside from their performances in Detmold itself, they take many of their productions on tour to smaller venues in Germany and neighboring countries.

Detmold Theater in the rain

My first visit to Detmold was in 2002, when I happened to be there for the premiere of a new production of the opera Martha, by Friedrich von Flotow (1812-1883). This was my first encounter with Martha, a light “romantic-comical” opera which was the most-often-performed opera in Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Program booklet 2002

From the 2002 program booklet, I learned that the world premiere of Martha took place in 1848 in Dresden and was conducted by none other than Richard Wagner — who hated it. Because Martha was a huge success, Wagner had to conduct it again and again, which made him hate it even more. I think it would have been funny to see the turgid, ultra-serious Wagner conducting such a light-hearted opera.

Wagner and Flotow were nearly exact contemporaries: Flotow was born a year earlier and died a few weeks before Wagner. The program booklet describes them as “two opposites” of the nineteenth century.

The story of Martha takes place in England, but the text is in German. One of the lyrical high points is Martha’s song “The last rose of summer”, based on a much older song in English by Thomas Moore. An article on “The secret of the rose” in the 2002 program booklet points out that in several languages the word rose is an anagram of eros.

Seating in the State Theater Detmold

Sixteen years later, in 2018, I returned to Detmold for another premiere of the same opera, Martha, this time in a new production by Kay Link.

Program booklet 2018

In his version, the opera takes place during the filming of a television reality show called “Farmer seeks maid”. Most of the major scenes are ‘filmed’ by supernumeraries with video cameras and microphone booms, but the story continues even in the breaks when the cameras are turned off. There is also an officious ‘director’, a woman who silently orders everyone around and tells them what to do. So it isn’t really ‘reality’ but at best a half-scripted version of reality, which all but the most naive viewers have probably assumed all along.

In the fourth act of the opera, we don’t see the filming crews or the director any more until the very end, when they are brought in bound and gagged to prevent them from interfering with the happy end of the story.

Applause after Martha in Detmold, 2018

There really is a ‘doku-soap’ series on one of the commercial German television networks called Bauer sucht Frau (Farmer seeks wife), but I must admit I have never seen it. Apparently it is quite popular, since it has been broadcast season after season since 2005 and has racked up well over a hundred episodes of 45 minutes each.

Ralph Bollmann, Walküre in Detmold

The book Walküre in Detmold describes the travels of a German journalist, Ralph Bollmann, who spent fourteen years (1997 to 2010) going to performances in eighty-one German opera houses. When I first heard of the book, I had only been to fifty-five of them; now I’m up to seventy-one, and I hope to seek out more after the coronavirus pandemic is over.

As Bollmann explains (page 14), the large number of theaters is a heritage of the former fragmentation of Germany. “From Neustrelitz to Karlsruhe, from Detmold to Munich, nearly half the German opera houses are former court theaters. The German provincial potentates used cultural splendor to compensate for their disappearing power, particularly after Bismarck’s founding of the Empire in 1871.” In addition to ornate palaces, museums and libraries, they particularly supported their opera houses, “which more than anything else created a symbolic connection to the large metropolitan cities.” He points out that nearly every German city which until 1918 was the residence of a ruling Prince or Duke still has its opera house today.

He says that counting only theaters with a full-time ensemble and year-round performances, the German-speaking areas of Europe (Germany, Austria and part of Switzerland) have “nearly as many opera houses as the entire rest of the world.” (page 13) He adds that “without Germany’s small and smallest theaters, many careers of international stars would not be possible,” since they give young singers the chance of getting their first full-time engagement.

Bollmann devotes only five pages of his book to Detmold (pages 44 to 48). Four of these are about the city’s current economic difficulties and only one is about an opera performance he attended there in 2006. It was Wagner’s Die Walküre as part of a production of the entire Ring des Niebelungen. “That means nearly fifteen hours of music, not including the intermissions, on four evenings which weld the ensemble and the always-the-same audience together as a community of fate, which for four evenings has cut itself off from the world.”

Never mind that the orchestra pit of the Detmold theater only has room for 60 musicians, rather than the 106 Wagner composed for. Bollmann says he quickly got used to this. “The Walküre as a chamber piece develops its own charm and is supported by the staging.” He adds that the staging “is reminiscent of the celebrated Stuttgart production of just a few years before. And that here, in Detmold!”

Lobby of the State Theater in Detmold

Here you can watch the trailer of Martha in Detmold 2018.

My photos in this post are from 2018. I revised the text in 2020.

See also: Seventy-one opera houses in Germany.

5 thoughts on “Two Marthas in Detmold”

  1. Very interesting explanation of the relative abundance of theaters in the German-speaking areas of Europe. More opera housesthan the rest of the world! That does put the rest of us to shame!

    I wonder if the dearth of theaters in the US is related to our lack of royalty/nobility, and therefore courts? (other than legal ones. Of course we have plenty of those!)

    This time of weakening principalities I think is referenced in the TV series, Victoria on PBS. Victoria’s consort, Prince ALbert of Koburgh (? Spelling?) and especially his brother Ernst, are shown as practically penniless German royalty on the hunt for rich brides. Leopold, their father and Victoria’s uncle, isnt the same Leopold you mention, by chance?

    Love the Viking at the busstop on the cover of the book. How lucky you are to live, steeped in culture! Hope you pass him at eighty-two performances!

    1. Thanks for your nice comment!

      The German town of Coburg (you were right to question the spelling) still has its opera house. It is one of the twenty I haven’t been to yet, even though a friend of mine was a soprano in their opera ensemble for two seasons.

      Leopold IV, the one I mentioned here, lived about two generations later than Victoria’s uncle.

  2. Thanks Don for this excellent piece and good photos of the State Theater Detmold. I enjoyed reading about ‘Walküre in Detmold’ by Ralph Bollmann. Amazing how culture connects societies through the ages!

    It’s January 2, post much revelling… I had to read about Kay Link’s production of ‘Martha’ twice to even begin to understand the plot!

    Best wishes for 2019. In the global tumult, a poet’s words bring hope.
    « Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack, a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in. » (‘Anthem’ by Leonard Cohen)

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