Lani in Weimar

Leipzig and Weimar mark part one of my Goethe pilgimage. (Wetzlar is soon to follow.) My friend Sarah (an American in Cambridge last year like me, and an American in Berlin at the moment) met me in Leipzig and was kind enough to indulge my author-themed itinerary. We spent a relaxed couple of days visiting Goethe-themed sights, with the occasional other author or composer thrown in.

Goethe in Leipzig

Leipzig has a positive mania for claiming famous figures as its own. And because Leipzig is a university town, it has a long list of Germans its can lay at least partial claim to: Leibniz, Lessing, Nietzsche, Angela Merkel, Schumann, Wagner, Mendelssohn, Bach, and, of course, Goethe. Despite the fact that Goethe only spent three years at university there and actually failed his exams, he’s well-commemorated. There’s a large, very shiny statue of him in a central square. But the best Goethe-related site in town is Auerbachs Keller. It’s the second-oldest restaurant in the city, dating back to the early 1400s. It was Goethe’s favorite wine bar during his student days, when it was already decorated with paintings from the story of Faust. He set a scene in his Faust I in the bar. Mephisto brings Faust here, impresses students with some magic involving an endless supply of wine, and rides off (with Faust) on a wine cask. Auerbachs Keller embraces its celebrity, with statues outside depicting scenes from Goethe’s play, Faust-themed paintings on all the walls, and a horribly cheesy wine cask with Mephisto and Faust dummies riding it.

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Yet another Traviata

There are too many Traviatas out there to waste time on bad ones. But I was disappointed by the Bayerische Staatsoper’s current production. (My review is here on Bachtrack.) The house was full—Traviata always sells well—but neither the staging nor the musical delivery were anything special.

Goodbye choir, hello opera

Last night was the final concert of the year for Munich Vocal Arts Society. Our small choir sang three religious pieces, Frostiana, and the Liebeslieder for a small but enthusiastic audience. Now, it’s all over for me—by the time the choir begins meeting again, I will be back in the United States.

Munich Vocal Arts Society, earlier this year. (We've gained and lost a few members since.) I'm in the front with the braids
Munich Vocal Arts Society, earlier this year. (We’ve both gained and lost a few members since.) I’m in the front with the braids

I am sad to bid farewell to my choir friends, but I’m not sad to be done working on choir music. That’s because I have other music to work on! I will sing the role of Procri in Cavalli’s opera Gli amori d’Apollo e di Dafne. Rehearsals start July 12 in Spain, so as soon as my score comes, I need to spend some time learning this beautiful scene. I’m very excited to get back on the stage!

Are Mother Courage’s children dead yet?

That’s all I could think during Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder at the Kammerspiele last night. It dragged on and on for what felt like much longer than two hours. And there was no intermission, so there was no chance of escape. The Munich Kammerspiele has a long history with this show—they actually staged the second-ever production in Germany, with Brecht himself directing. One presumes he made it a lot more interesting than this new production’s director, Thomas Schmauser.

Ursula Werner, Lena Lauzemis, Peter Brombacher, Christian Löber, Stefan Merki, and Leonard Klenner. Photo: Julian Baumann
Ursula Werner, Lena Lauzemis, Peter Brombacher, Christian Löber, Stefan Merki, and Leonard Klenner. Photo: Julian Baumann

The show was often physically painful. I realize that Brecht plays are supposed to provoke discomfort, but I always thought that was intellectual discomfort. Here, long songs sung off-key and whole scenes that were shouted at the top of the actors’ lungs (in the small black box venue) forced me to cover my ears. Lena Lauzemis’s shrill, nasal voice as Yvette hurt, too. Taking things to extremes can be effective, but not when those extremes are so annoying that they distract from the words and story. Continue reading Are Mother Courage’s children dead yet?

The (fun) little Faust

Mephisto warned us right at the beginning of tonight’s performance that we wouldn’t leave weeping over Marguerite’s fate. I sincerely hope that wasn’t news to the people crazy enought to book tickets to a German translation of a French operetta parody of a French opera of a German play. I was one of those people. And while I knew to expect silliness, I wasn’t sure exactly what Hervé’s Le petit Faust (or, as the Gärtnerplatztheater is calling it, Dr. Faust jun.) would be. As it turns out, it’s a wonderfully topsy-turvy version of the original, in which Maguerite is not so innocent, Faust is not so thoughtful, and no one should be taken seriously. Spinning wheels and pseudo-woeful monologues and showpiece arias all have their place… and so do yodeling, zombies, and can-can dancing.

Marguerite, the can-can dancer. All photos © Christian POGO Zach
Marguerite, the can-can dancer. All photos © Christian POGO Zach

The story: Dr. Faust is a professor at a boarding school. Valentine entrusts his troublesome sister Marguerite to Faust’s care, and Faust is immediately drawn to her. So he’s an easy target when Mephisto comes offering youth, beauty, and riches. The price? His understanding. (Not his soul—“Everyone sells that these days, without even signing a contract.”) He has imagined Marguerite as the pinnacle of innocence and purity, and with his newfound advantages, he sets out to seek her. Meanwhile, she has gone to England to teach the English can-can dancing. Faust finally finds her in a seedy nightclub, and he is horrified that an “innocent” girl could have stumbled into such a place. He flags down a carriage to take her away, and who should be inside but Valentine? Because Faust is trying to run off with his sister, Valentine fights Faust and is killed. (But don’t worry—Valentine’s death doesn’t prevent him from dancing jigs.) As Marguerite and Faust prepare for their marriage, Valentine’s ghost appears to warn Marguerite that Faust’s fortune comes from the devil. She doesn’t care—until Faust reveals that, in order to make himself worthy of her, he has given away the fortune. Suddenly, she cares a great deal and is denouncing him as the murderer of her brother. Faust is finally disillusioned, but Mephisto nevertheless forces Faust and Marguerite together “eternally,” in obedience to the wish Faust had expressed. Continue reading The (fun) little Faust

Tallinn, Estonia

Why Estonia? Helsinki or Oslo would have been a more typical end to my Nordic tour. But when I chatted with some Fulbrighters based in Finland, they recommended Tallinn as a cheaper and prettier destination. And I think it was a good choice.

Tallinn is an impressive city. Estonia has only been independent for 24 years, but it feels more like a Nordic country than an Eastern bloc country. The infrastructure is fabulous. There is free Wi-Fi almost everywhere, a secure and high-tech system that lets citizens do everything from voting to taxes to starting businesses online, and extensive public transit (which is free for city residents, though not for tourists). It’s not quite as inexpensive as, say, Budapest, but the prices still come as a relief after Stockholm and Copenhagen. Also, amusingly, Estonia’s president is rather infamous for starting Twitter wars with other countries. Just a fun fact.

Old Town

Tallinn has one of the best-preserved medieval old towns in the world. It’s very small and cute, with lots of churches in various styles, a still-operating pharmacy dating back to at least 1422, and a mostly-intact wall. (Apparently, Estonia entered the wall in some sort of “additional wonders of the word” competition. It lost to the Great Wall of China. But that’s pretty stiff competition.) I took a free walking tour with a hilariously wry guide who told us lots of silly stories. For instance: one of the oldest churches was partially destroyed by Soviet bombs. When Estonia joined the USSR, they asked for money and permission to rebuild the church. Their proposal was repeatedly rejected, until they offered to make the space a museum of atheism. (What goes inside a museum of atheism? Who knows? The museum never actually happened.)

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