The Anglo-German Divide

Tom Sutcliffe reflects on the differences between British and German attitudes to operatic and theatrical production

The Anglo-German Divide, subject of a two-day workshop at Berlin’s main sociological research Wissenschaftszentrum in November, has been sharpened and widened by the Eurozone crisis. The Daily Mail caricatured Kanzler Angela Merkel in Nazi uniform, pretty shameless considering the Rothermere press’s love of Hitler and Mussolini in the Thirties. I was invited by Sir Peter Jonas to join the workshop which he organized jointly with Steffen Huck, economics professor at UCL. Jonas famously and very successfully moved to Munich in 1993, after running the ENO, to take over and transform the Bavarian State Opera from a conservative institution famous for its Richard Strauss to an adventurous modern company.

The world’s operatic engine

I was recommended to read in advance Peter Watson’s immense 2010 compendium The German Genius (Simon & Schuster UK, £9.99) which gave me a much broader grasp of German science and philosophy and literature too – including how their university system grew up and changed in the eighteenth century and came to place such emphasis on research. But I am frequently in Germany because it is now the world’s operatic engine, and my Leverhulme Fellowship allowed me to see a lot more opera and theatre in Germany than I ever had before and talk to many of the people putting it all on. It is 50 years since I visited Germany for the first time during my first Long Vac at Magdalen, Oxford – staying six weeks with a cousin who was a judge on the Supreme Restitution Court in Herford, Westfalia. My son now lives in Berlin, and my wife has translated many German plays by writers like Thomas Bernhard, Ödön von Horváth, Werner Schwab and most recently Goethe.

Contrasting values

The big issue which prompted Peter and Steffen to hold their workshop was not just the German obsession with inflation and preference for codified law, whereas Anglo-American justice relies on precedent-based Common Law and Keynesian economics is more concerned with economic vitality than with stable prices. Peter is enormously aware of contrasting attitudes and values in British and German theatre and opera. A new production of Traviata in Hanover by Benedikt von Peter, whose Intolleranza 1960 (also at Hanover last year) has just won the Deutscher Buehnenverein’s 2011 Faust prize, presents the whole of the Verdi with only Violetta on stage – while supporting characters sing their roles from seats in the audience. The staging of Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza required audience members (maximum 270 or so) to be led behind the safety curtain on the stage and subjected to simulated or almost real torture. This is what Jonas in his introductory address called ‘Concept and ideas’ as against the prevailing British approach to theatrical and operatic production which he defined as ‘Performance and narrative’. The director in Germany is not only well subsidized. Opera is as much part of the expected local culture in Germany as your local parish church is in England. With eighty-plus opera companies and 250 theatre companies there is vastly more choice for audiences. If you really hated Hanover’s Traviata, you could probably find another production half an hour away. But, also, once local politicians with their Culture Advisers have ‘ordained’ an opera boss, his discretion to choose what he wants to put on stage is almost absolute (at least for some years). In a way , the Intendants of opera and theatre companies, most of which possess permanent salaried ensembles, are the last absolutist bosses in Germany who don’t have to make a profit and they are backed by administrative and back-stage teams who are permanently employed – like civil servants. For their few British equivalents the box office is a constant concern.

Geography and population

The Anglo-German divide as far as culture is concerned remains a matter of geography and of population spread. Germany has far more large and medium-sized towns and trading centres. Fundamentally, German mayors and local government ministers have always exercised real local responsibility for achieving coherent and locally supported quality spending. In Britain we have a single metropolis in London that controls the purse strings for the whole country, and this Versailles effect makes the power of the centre and the top in our country irresistible. And another crucial distinction is the existence of Hollywood and of the USA which has freed the English from feeling too responsible for what happens to what used to be local English culture. We are all rentiers now, earning and benefiting not from what we do but from where we have placed our investment.

In Germany, they know that if they do not keep their own great theatrical, operatic and musical culture alive nobody else is going to do it for them. But a cultural reformation may be about to hit both countries. Making theatre, making things, will need to matter more in the England of the future, while German culture is going to become less the plaything of the privileged modernism-oriented cultural gauleiters who currently choose what the public has to endure and like. And German audiences in my experience are immensely tolerant and supportive of their local opera and theatre. ND