Danke, Germany! Two World-Class Operas (and a Ballet)


I’m back from a 16-day trip around Germany (plus Amsterdam and Paris) with B-cat, and Vancouver has never seemed more spacious or moderate in climate. Really, anyone who complains about Raincouver needs to walk through a German spring shower — just avoid the trees, if you know anything about lightning safety.

These are the main cities we visited in Germany (and my inane descriptions of them):

  • Hannover (nice big European city with lovely palaces)
  • Hamburg (busier and less nice city full of great cathedrals)
  • Wismar (older, smaller, cuter town)
  • Lubeck (pretty though tourist-y centre of marzipan!)
  • Berlin (mostly a super modern dwelling for giants)
  • Dresden (a place of traceless history and unpleasant people)
  • Leipzig (a bit too East Germany)
  • Munich (many immigrants, not many attractive structures)

While I didn’t get to see Staatsballett Berlin — my fault for making B-cat handle the bulk of the scheduling with limited time — we caught Hamburg State Opera‘s La Traviata, Hamburg Ballet‘s Romeo and Juliet, and Bavarian State Opera‘s Elektra. Not bad for two bums with limited budgets and, until then, no knowledge of German. It’s amazing how many words and phrases you can pick up if you must, even where most residents speak English better than the average Vancouverite.

Hamburg State Opera

The world-class Hamburg State Opera or Hamburgische Staatsoper holds performances in the same opera house as Hamburg Ballet. The latter was highly recommended by my friend J, a well-travelled and highly educated woman from Hannover whom I met in Goh Ballet’s adult class.

This trip only came about because I was attending her wedding near Wismar and she let me shamelessly bring B-cat (who, in my defence, probably entertained the couple better…).

Anyway, this idiot (me, not J) forgot that Germans use German, and was surprised to discover that opera surtitles in Germany are in German. Luckily, La Traviata being one of the most well-known operas EVER, I could follow it while whispering vague notes to B-cat.

Hamburg State Opera

[story time]

Based on The Lady of the Camellias, a work far better known in Asia than the opera adaptation, Verdi‘s La Traviata is a tragedy about the courtesan Violetta who at first wavers between her life of luxury and her suitor Alfredo, and then chooses him for love and happiness, which are lost when Alfredo’s father convinces her to leave him for his family’s sake. Alfredo, led to believe Violetta has chosen another, humiliates her in public, but repents when his father tells him the truth. The lovers reunite briefly at Violetta’s deathbed.

[/story time]

While the singers are very good, with powerful voices and strong acting, the production is the sort that works only in photographs: the set looks hypermodern but cheap and static in person, as if someone tried to stretch a snapshot into a feature film. Not only that, the bumper cars raised and lowered on wires malfunctioned several times during the performance, leading to one performer’s stiff-faced slipping and scrabbling in a painfully awkward scene. It’s hard to look graceful and seductive when you’re dressed like Harley Quinn (read: a clown) and being helped (read: dragged) across a row of slippery cars.

The opera house itself, despite being modern and not very pretty, is well suited to its use. Unlike in Vancouver’s main theatres, the stage is narrower but deeper, and seats are packed up the sides in a shallower space. Both allow the audience to hear and see better from any seat. Hamburg Ballet

Romeo and Juliet needs no introduction, so I will just say that this is the best ballet I’ve ever seen in person (did you know the Bolshoi airs live in movie theatres worldwide?).

I tried, I really tried to find fault with Hamburg Ballet so that I could gloat about how Ballet BC, Goh Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, or the semi professional ballet companies near me are better. But even B-cat noticed the difference right away.

Unlike North American companies, Hamburg Ballet doesn’t mechanically focus on technique — though the technique is flawless — it has true artistry. The acting is as convincing as the best of Hollywood, and the performance has real emotion, which until now I’d thought couldn’t be conveyed through dance.

This is the first time I’ve ever cried at a ballet.

Bavarian State Opera

There’s no much I can say about Elektra, either, but that’s because I totally failed. The Bavarian State Opera unfortunately offers no English programmes, nor any surtitlesin German or otherwise. Nor did I read the libretto beforehand (#1 rule of attending an opera). The singing is masterly and the staging and costumes effective, but only the vague memory of the Greek tragedy kept me going… oh, and the fantastic music. Strauss is very, very much to my taste. The opera would have been so much better if I didn’t only read the story afterwards with B-cat.

[shameful story time]

As you probably know, Elektra is the heroine (?) of the Greek tragedy in which she helps kill her mother to avenge the murder of her father. The actual matricide is done by her brother, but she’s the one who goes mad and dies in the end. Of course.

[/shame] National Theatre Munich

National Theatre Munich, where performances take place, has all the virtues of Hamburg’s opera house but none of its flaws. The building is Old World beautiful, and the seats are cheap. If it weren’t for airfare, I could really get used to enjoying the arts in Europe.

But at least I can enjoy smooth-tasting tap water and clean public washrooms for free. Tchus!