Barrie Kosky Talks About Bringing Weimar Operetta Back to Berlin


originally published in the Jewish Daily Forward.

On a freezing January evening, a large crowd gathered to watch as three stolpersteine were hammered into the sidewalk outside the Komische Oper Berlin. These brass stones commemorate victims — mostly, but not all, Jewish — of Nazi persecution. The plaques laid in front of the opera commemorated Jews who were involved there before the war: Fritz Spira was an actor and singer killed in the Ruma concentration camp; the concertmaster Kuba Reichmann went into exile and survived; Hans Walter Schapira, who worked in the library and the box office, was a victim of the Nazis’ euthanasia program T4. Stolpersteine are usually placed by buildings where those who were exiled or murdered used to live. By laying these three stones out in front of opera house, the Komische Oper was drawing attention to the crucial role that Jews played at Europe’s leading operetta theater, the Metropol-Theater, which operated where the Komische now stands.

The stolperstein ceremony took place on the evening of the company’s first premiere of 2015, a little-known operetta called “Eine Frau, die weiss, was sie will” (“A Woman Who Knows What She Wants”) by the Viennese Jewish composer Oscar Straus. The sold-out production was directed by the company’s artistic director Barrie Kosky. Since taking over the house in 2012, the Australian Jewish director has placed an emphasis on forgotten works of Jewish composers who contributed to Berlin’s musical fame — many working at the Metropol-Theater — before the Third Reich.

“Eine Frau” bowed as part of the Komische’s recent operetta festival, which also featured Kosky’s productions of Paul Abraham’s “Ball im Savoy” and Jacques Offenbach’s “La Belle Hélène,” (which opened the Komische’s season this year on a deliriously giddy note back in October) alongside an international conference on operetta called “Bravura and Banality.” As a prologue, Kosky led a late-night concert of Yiddish songs on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which this year marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. “Farges Mikh Nit: Jiddische Operettenlieder von Warschau zum Broadway” featured two sopranos singing standards by Abraham Ellstein, Molly Picon (including several songs from “Mameleh”), Abraham Goldfaden, Sholom Secunda and Joseph Rumshinsky.

Kosky’s “Eine Frau” was the first production of that work at the Komische since its premiere in September 1932, with operetta legend Fritzi Massary in the lead role. It was her last appearance at the Metropol-Theater. Several months later, the Nazis took power and Massary found herself an exile, first in Austria and then in America, where she landed in 1939, a year before Oscar Straus arrived in Hollywood…

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