Power of Germany

Tom Sutcliffe on The Tempest at Lübeck and the importance of Germany to the survival and success of opera in Europe

Twice since Christmas I have been to Germany to see new productions of The Tempest, Thomas Adès’s opera that was premiered at Covent Garden in February

2004, for which my wife Meredith Oakes wrote the libretto, ‘after Shakespeare’ as it says. According to Grove’s Dictionary of Opera there had already been 57 operas written based on the Shakespeare play before this one, almost all of which had vanished without trace. But in the current season the Adès version has not only been premiered in Germany at the Frankfurt Opera, it has also had a second completely different production in Lübeck by the local opera company there. And, as in other places where it has been heard (Strasbourg, Copenhagen and Santa Fe), the public does seem to go for it – which is gratifying.

Operatic melodic tradition

Music critics who think new serious operas should follow in the path of Schoenberg and Stockhausen, or at least acknowledge being part of that movement of modernism, sometimes complain about Adès’s feeling for the old operatic melodic tradition. His music for The Tempest manages to be modern and expressively discordant sometimes, but also to evoke without strain the atmosphere of the seventeenth century.

One role in particular, Ariel, is unlike anything ever heard on the opera stage before – unbelievably stratospheric, way beyond the range of the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, and very demanding to sing. Before Lübeck, every time the opera was performed Ariel had been sung by the wonderful Cyndia Sieden, who created the role at the Garden, in a production which also involved quite a lot of rope-work flying through the air. But in Lübeck somebody new got to do the part, Louise Fribo, who made her debut six years ago at the Royal Danish Opera as Barbarina in Figaro.

What is interesting about Theater Lübeck’s tackling of the Adès work is the fact that the Lübeck company is not particularly distinctive or unusual. Brogli-Sacher’s fine interpretation of the Wagner epic staged by a Cypriot director Anthony Pilavachi has got as far as Siegfried without dropping a stitch. The Tempest cast were two-thirds in the local ensemble, augmented with a few guest singers. The role of Prospero was sung by a Scottish baritone who has been on contract in Lübeck for nine years and therefore is unknown in Britain.

Financial details

I asked Mr Brogli-Sacher for some financial details about opera in Lübeck whose population is 211,000. The opera part of the town theatre company gives 109 performances a year in the fine Jugendstil theatre built in 1908. The ensemble has 11 singers, with five youngish others in the ‘opera studio’. Salaries per month for the singers range from €1,900 up to €3,800 (and I suspect as usually in Germany there is a thirteenth month paid, plus large contributions to superannuation and medical insurance). The city pays nearly €6m in support of its theatre, and the Schleswig-Holstein state government tops that up with almost €10m. The chorus of 28 was topped up with eight paid extra singers for The Tempest. The orchestra is 80-strong. This season there are eight new opera productions being given by the company, and eight revivals of existing productions from previous seasons – 16 works in all – including Evita and Leslie Bricusse’s Jekyll and Hyde, as well as Masked Ball, Gypsy Baron, Arabella, Andrea Chenier, Cunning Little Vixen, and Turandot. Meanwhile in Cardiff Welsh National Opera is this season managing only one home-grown new production, Meistersinger staged by Richard Jones. Germany is the world’s operatic engine. Let’s hope they keep at it. If they ever stopped, it would be the end of opera as a living art form. ND