The “Grande Dame” is Back in the Opera


“You are like a circus-horse.  As soon as you hear the music, you start dancing.”

That’s the loving joke my father used to make about my mother, most likely in German amongst their Berlin friends, since “Zirkuspferd” (circus-horse) is a word in the German idiom, a more glamorous, theatrical alternative to the mundane, desultory “workhorse”.

Well, my mother is “dancing” again.  The “80 year old Grande Dame of Opera”, as the Berliner Zeitung referred to her, is playing hooky from retirement in the Opera Lab Berlin production of Mauricio Kagel’s “Staatstheater”, which caused such a fuss during its 1971 Hamburg world premiere that the composer required police protection.

Here is Opera Lab Berlin’s promotional video of their production, directed by Michael Höppner, and concluding its run in Berlin today:

Opera Lab Berlin – Staatstheater von Kagel from Vincent Stefan on Vimeo.

Opera Lab Berlin’s website says “Kagel set Staatstheater with the concept of musical theater itself, its conditions and possibilities. This is typical of Kagel’s black-humored, partly grotesque, partly absurd approach but it also leaves room for interpretations and even new conceptualisations of the piece. getbildtextThe only formal requirement is that it must be no longer than 100 minutes duration.”

My mother would tell me details of the rehearsal process that would confuse and intrigue me.  I first gathered that the opera was about retired opera singers in an old folks home haunted or even driven mad by their memories.  But as that may be how the action begins, the opera itself becomes something far larger, absurdist, elusive, even audience-participatory.  It sounds to me like the love child of Eugène Ionesco and John Cage … joining an orgy with the Blue Man Group.

My mother tells me the run has been sold out and the audience has been enthusiastic.  As have critics, giving it five stars.

I wish I could have been in Berlin to see my mother sing opera on stage again.  Modern opera was a big part of her six (and now seven) decades spanning career.  Many contemporary composers (like Luigi Nono, Aribert Reimann, Josef Tal) wrote specifically for her voice.  In the 1980’s she sang the world premiere of Kagel’s “Aus Deutschland” in the Deutsche Oper Berlin.  So this sojourn into his absurdist, aleatoric “Staatstheater” must have felt a bit like a “Welcome Back, Cathy”.

Cathy Gayer

My mother, Catherine Gayer, and her colleague Klaus Lang in front of the posters for “Staatstheater”

About dannyashkenasi

I'm a composer with over 40 years experience creating music theater. I'm also an actor, writer, director, producer, teacher and general enthusiast for the arts.
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