in the garden

 

Feb 2001 Journal

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Opera uproar

Of late, opera houses in different countries have been much in the headlines – unfortunately largely for non-musical reasons. La Fenice in Venice burnt down, the Bolshoi faced financial ruin, Covent Garden was beset by rebuilding problems, Bayreuth riven by feuds among the Wagner clan and now the cash-strapped Berlin municipality needs to shed an entire opera house. Since opera can never pay for itself, it requires either public subvention or munificent patrons. In Berlin the authorities who, in Cold War days, subsidised the arts to the hilt for propagandist reasons, are currently embroiled in a painful cost-cutting exercise – while captains of industry seem to lack the Maecenas instinct. (One wonders if German musicians sometimes regret the emigration of the likes of Paul Hamlyn.)

The new-old German capital is currently a battleground contested by advocates of budgetary restraint and defenders of artists’ entitlement to full employment. In this conflict Deutsche Oper director Daniel Barenboim is caught in the middle, his discomfort compounded by a local politician’s reference to him as ‘the Jew Barenboim’. However, this fraught situation holds greater danger for the German metropolis than it does for the star conductor, whose departure would tarnish Berlin’s laboriously constructed image as a world centre of culture on a par with New York, Paris and London.

London’s vibrant operatic scene has also had a Jewish dimension injected into it of late. Some time ago an ENO production of Rossini’s Moise at the Coliseum ended in a tableau glorifying Palestinian guerrillas. Right now, by contrast, the same house hosts a staging of Verdi’s Nabucco which depicts the Babylonians as forerunners of the Nazis. The composer, whose Va pensiero chorus of the exiled Hebrews is one of the loveliest and moving pieces in the operatic repertoire, would surely have approved.
Richard Grunberger

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