THE BERLIN KROLL OPERA HOUSE: THE MIDDLE OF GERMANY • Various Artists • EUROARTS 2001738 (DVD: 59:00); Directed by Jörg Moser-Metius
This sad but true film about what you might call “The Little Opera House That Could” seems to have been made in 1990 and licensed through Brilliant Music, but this is the only DVD release I was able to locate online. If it has been out previously, it must have been so long ago that no one remembers or has a copy of it, so this new incarnation through EuroArts is quite welcome indeed.
Read more The film was definitely made in 1990, as that is where it ends chronologically—with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the general merriment and celebrations that followed. Of course, what ties in these images with the Kroll Opera is that the then-demolished building sat directly across from the Reichstag, and was for better or worse in one of the most public spots in Berlin. The brainchild of Kaiser Wilhelm I, the opera house was originally built by Joseph Kroll who gave the opera house its name. It was built in record time in 1843, burned to the ground and rebuilt in 1851 even grander than before. It was enormously successful for a period of time; Johann Strauss Jr. was one of its music directors, Gustav Mahler conducted there, Caruso sang there, and Pavlova danced there. By this time it was renamed the “Neues Königliches Operntheater;” but shortly thereafter, Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted a new Royal State Opera at the same location, bigger and more glorious. Demolition on the smaller building began in the summer of 1914, but was interrupted after only one week by a little incident called World War I. The remains of the building were filled with rags and wool.
In the 1920s, the Little Opera House That Could rose from the dust and destruction left in Berlin after the war. The “Berliner Volksbühne” rented the opera in 1921, completely renovated it, and reopened it in January 1924 with a production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, but it was three and a half years later that the real glory years arrived.
Many famous artists, directors, and set designers had an impact on the “new” Kroll Opera, but the catalyst who made the entire company leap a quarter-century into the future was none other than conductor Otto Klemperer. Under his dynamic direction, the Kroll Opera became the focal point for the most modern and innovative productions in the entire world. All of the principal singers hired for Kroll not only had to sing well but also had to act. The average age of the company dropped significantly; Klemperer wanted, and hired, a great many singers who were also noted for superb acting skills to bring across his and his directors’ new ideas. Fehling and Gustav Gründgens were among the enthusiastic directors; Le nozze di Figaro and Carmen shared the repertoire with Oedipus Rex and Ernst Krenek’s opera Der Diktator (1931). Sadly, only a few names are given in this film of the many artists who sang at the Kroll, such as sopranos Moje Forbach (interviewed in the video) and Rose Pauly, and mezzo-soprano Elsa Rusziczka. The latter enthuses about how good the camaraderie was among artists there, how “the team stuck together,” yet sadly none of the other excellent singers—including a splendid baritone as the Flying Dutchman—are named, not even in the credits at the end. We assume that most of what we hear is conducted by Klemperer, but we’re not 100 percent sure; Klemperer is definitely named for the excerpts from Fidelio (conducted at a lightning pace similar to his colleague Toscanini, nothing at all like his sluggish early-1950s recording for EMI), but the excerpts from Oedipus Rex are unidentified and those from Salome were conducted by composer Alexander Zemlinsky.
The sets were sparse and to some extent representative of Bauhaus architecture, but to another extent prescient of Wieland Wagner’s brilliant “bare bones” stagings of the 1950s. Artists large and small—visual artists as well as musicians and fellow-singers—are wildly enthusiastic about these new concepts. Rachel Emily Nussbaum, in her 2005 doctoral dissertation for Cornell University, makes a strong case for Klemperer’s Kroll Opera as the representative of “the new republican state form…which involved using the theater as a way of uniting German society…it nevertheless managed to create its own public far beyond the elites who usually attended opera. The Kroll is an example of the transformation of the idea of the Bildungsbürgertum, or the educated bourgeoisie, in the1920s.” (Ref: hdl.handle.net/1813/2130.) But being so far ahead of its time, the Kroll Opera sadly overshot its mark. The organizations for theatergoers were more interested in procuring cheap tickets for their members, and the public or Volksbühne felt excluded because they expected more traditional theater. This lack of acceptance on the part of the working people—for whom, ironically, this new theatrical concept was primarily aimed—led to financial troubles and eventually ruin as the government, which by 1931 had a fairly hefty Nazi representation, refused to rescue the Kroll Opera, which was closed that year.
This was the end of the story of Kroll’s greatness, but the remainder of the film painstakingly traces the slowly dying embers of the building and the uses to which it was put. All traces of what was left were pulled down and demolished in 1956. As you go through the rest of the film, director Moser-Metius gives us a telescopic view of what happened to the grounds through the years. The most striking and inventive images occur near the end, as he first juxtaposes images of Nazi vehicles bearing the Führer and his retinue through the streets and then magically time-warps the new buildings erected on or near the site onto existing footage.
The only detriment of this film is its brevity. Personally, I would have liked an extra five minutes spent on the Klemperer era and, of course, to have more of the principal singers identified, but either way you view it this is a remarkably well-put-together form of time travel that gives the non-German viewer an excellent long view of the history of the site, its buildings, and its various phases. To a certain extent, the Klemperer era represents no more than a blip on the sands of time, but that blip was extraordinarily important and showed how one could create vital, modern, and experimental opera theater without filling the stage with naked bodies, blood, sheep, chickens, or spacemen. Highly recommended.
Interesting documentary on the Kroll Opera HouseJune 10, 2013By Warren Harris See All My Reviews"This DVD is about the famous Berlin Kroll Opera House a building no longer in existence that nevertheless left its mark in the history of Germany. The documentary covers the founding of the opera house, concentrates on the time during the years that Adolf Hitler was in power, and continues on through until 1990 when there are no traces left of the building. A great deal of historical footage is present, the most powerful being that of Hitler when the structure was an alternative seat of the Reichstag. A number of interviews from people and performers that were in the opera house enhance the documentary, but overall the piece as a whole is primarily of historical interest rather than feeling as if it was telling the story of a vital piece of musical history. The program is well presented, and if you like such documentaries then you will definitely enjoy this one. But if you are looking for something with more of a musical focus then the fact that this was a famous opera house, then it might not be quite what you are looking for."Report Abuse