Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Is Bonn Burning?

After a quick visit back to the States, where he joined us a for a lovely dinner, Sam Shirakawa returned to Germany in time to catch a Gala evening in Bonn on New Year's Eve:


If you scanned the New Year's Eve schedule for state-supported music theaters in Europe, you probably found some opera, lots of operetta and even more musicals. The financially strapped Theater-Bonn, however, was one of the few venues that offered a gala concert -- boldly entitled 'The Best of a Night at the Opera." An event naming itself so similarly to the Marx Brothers' film classic was too much to foreswear. So I trained down from Cologne to the former capital of West Germany and managed to finagle a standing place.

As it turned out, there wasn't much opera and nearly nothing to recall the Marx Brothers' classic film. But there was a lot of fun anyway. Performers from the Theater's musical, spoken drama and opera divisions engaged themselves in an entertaining variety program that wanted only for jugglers and flying trapeze artists.

Which is not to say, there were no acrobatics. Lyric coloratura Emiliya Ivanova leaping the crossover gap from Juliette's "Je veux Vivre" to Sting's "It's Probably Me" was no mean feat. And Theater-Bonn's resident Verdi tenor Mirko Roschkowski jumping the time gap by doing a duet (quasi Il Divo) with Enrico Caruso's rendition of the Brindisi from Traviata was nothing short of thrilling.

Bonn's Beethoven Orchester (led throughout the concert by several conductors) sounded equally at home performing John Williams theme music from "Star Wars" as they were in doubling with a pop band in "Jig a Jag" from "East of Eden."

Galas sometimes showcase hidden talents, and on this occasion Mark Morouse and Mark Rosenthal, two American members of the Beethoven Orchestra's brass section, multi-tasked by singing the Duet from Verdi's Don Carlo and playing their respective solo parts. Trust me, it worked far better on stage than it does on paper. These guys probably won't be called in as stand-bys for Domingo and... well, Domingo, but their in-your-face enthusiasm delighted the crusty Bonn audience.

Günter Alt of the acting ensemble also did double-duty as two moderators -- sporting a formal jacket during the first part and donning even more gay apparel in the second half, by slipping into a floor-length gown. His witty repartee recalled the incomparable Danny La Rue. No drag he.

This was a rare evening, and such events are in danger of becoming rarer still. The slashes in government spending have already eliminated Theater-Bonn's ballet. The talk currently is of disbanding the Theater altogether and merging it with Cologne's theatrical operations.

Talk about bean-counting imbecility.

When Bonn was capital of West Germany, its theater was one of the nation's cultural crown jewels. The opera house designed by the Stuttgart architect Wilfried Beck-Erlang and completed in 1965, is a masterpiece, even though it has only one set of toilets to serve all 1,038 attendees for a sold-out performance -- persuasive evidence that members of the government, who most frequented the opera, were toads. The programs have usually been adventurous and the productions, more often than not, have made sense. To merge a company with such a distinct profile with Cologne, while the latter is sorting out its chaotic affairs is not merely imprudent, it is bonkers.

The madness of this plan literally crushed my thoughts as I boarded the train back to Cologne. In its finite wisdom, Deutsche Bahn down-sized the number of wagons for New Year's Eve (!) from five to three. Cutbacks everywhere. By the time the the train doors closed, I was packed in among at least 500 merry-makers -- most of them under 25, most of them already stewed or prepared to hit infinity with Liebfraumilch. They were loud but surprisingly well-behaved, though a petit Asian Mädchen standing next to me gave me that glassy-eyed look that intimated i'mgonnaheavealloveryou. During the interminable journey back to the City of Eleven-Thousand Virgins (so many?), I tried to distract myself by speculating how many of these passengers had also attended the opera that night. When that thought gave me a heave-ho sensation, I wondered how many of them were budding opera singers. As their tuneless, inebriated braying washed over me, I started feeling oddly better.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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