Monday, July 09, 2012

A TALE OF TWO BOYBANDS

THE 12 TENORS
Tipi am Kanzleramt Berlin
6 July 2012
CROSSOVER BERLIN STYLE 
(MEISTERSINGER / COMEDIAN HARMONISTS)
Komische Oper / Komödie am Kurfürstendamm Berlin
7 July 2012


© SAM H. SHIRAKAWA
The 12 Tenors
Last week I had a couple of engagements in Berlin.  I had planned to spend my two free evenings attending opera, concerts or the theater, until an advertisement for a show caught my attention.  Simply titled The 12 Tenors, it was playing at what turned out to be a jumbo tent housing a dinner theater.  Even if I were to turn back, which I wanted to do, it was too late to find an alternative: Tipi am Kanzleramt is located smack in the woods of the Tiergarten, positioned between, but still far from, the Brandenburg Gate and the Federal Enclave known as the Bundestag.  In fact, Tipi isn’t near anything.  


So I went in.  It's a pleasant showplace seating several hundred patrons at tables set on graduated risers. Everybody has a clear view of the stage. The wait staff don't hustle you.
Tipi am Kanzleramt Berlin
As the dozen tenors, all 30ish, all talented, finished their last number before intermission, one of the performers pointed to the bar, advising the audience:  “The more you drink, the better we sound!”  Actually, I was finding that the more I drank, the louder they sounded.  By the time I got to my second bottle of mineral water, I had a headache the size of the Reichstag.  


I have to say straight on, that the 12 tenors work harder than apostles. They put on a reasonably good show, and they succeed in being moderately entertaining.  But net-net I found the show a deeply depressing affair, which was hardly ameliorated by the two ladies seated at my table, who kept clucking at each other, like hens on uppers.  
Half a dozen of the 12 Tenors

The overwhelming impediment that prevented the show from going ballistic for me was immediately obvious:  The woeful sound design made the guys sound bloated, all alike, and worst of all, unmusical.  A pity, because all 12 tenors are blessed with gifts that only God can tender. But the issues behind the deadliness of The 12 Tenors run deeper than a sadistic sound system, and I spent a troubled night trying to figure out where the nexus of the problem lay.  


The next day, I was faced with the irritating dilemma of having to choose between two events: the final Meistersinger this season at the Komische Oper near Unter den Linden and a performance of Veronika der Lenz ist da: The Comedian Harmonists, the long-running show about the daddy of all boy bands at the Komödie, an historic boulevard theater on the Kurfürstendamm across town.  Since the former started at 5 pm and the latter at 8,  I decided to catch the first act of Meistersinger, grab a snack, and dash to the Komödie. 
Marco Jentzsche (above) Tómas Tómassen
Meistersinger @ Komische Oper

The first epiphany struck me as the Prelude to Meistersinger segued into the thrilling chorale (“Da zu Dir Heilland kam...”) that begins the first act.  Wagner’s power in writing for mixed voices nears its apogee in this moment, as the ordinariness of human utterance accrues Handelian glory through empyrean harmony and sublime counterpoint.  And it occurred to me as the chorale ended, that The 12 Tenors are bereft of the slightest trace of that glory to which, arguably, only the tenor voice can aspire.  But they are not to blame. The part writing for their grab bag of pop songs and smatterings of classics is at best routine, at worst dull, and made insufferable by the amplification. 

The most enlightening revelations dawned on me, though, as I took my seat at the Komödie a few minutes late, at the beginning of the long scene in which members of a newly formed boy band work long, hard and without money to forge a repertoire and a unique sound profile.  That sound, modeled after an American group called The Revelers, was conceived largely by Harry Frommermann (a tenor), and it is still imitated today. Once it was refined, this profile, combined with Frommermann's witty arrangements, brought the world racing to their feet for a brief shining moment before the Nazis banned them. 


As one of the characters in the show admits, no one member of the Comedian Harmonists is a great, even distinguished singer.  But together, they are a miracle. None of the 12 Tenors is great nor distinguished either.  As a group, unfortunately, they are also no miracle.  
Harry Frommermann (1906-1975)

Which doesn’t mean that they can’t invent themselves.  But they need a vision like the one Harry Frommermann had to transform themselves into a Democracy of Kings.  They have a tour of 80 cities ahead of them -- a rare chance to develop a compelling sound that is theirs alone.

Meanwhile, for pity’s sake, guys, don’t keep asking if I’m enjoying the show, because given the conditions hamstringing the group now, no, I'm not.  Did the Comedian Harmonists ever once need to ask? 

By the way, what little I heard of the Komische Oper’s Meistersinger was musically even better than when I first saw the current production two seasons ago.  The cast, which has remained largely intact, has developed in the right direction.  Tómas Tómassen (Sachs), Marco Jentzsch (von Stolzing), Tom Erik Lie (Beckmesser), Ina Kringelborn (Eva) and Thomas Ebenstein (David) all sounded more relaxed and involved.  I hope Tómassen and Jentzsch didn’t run out of steam, as they did the night I first saw them in 2010.   Patrick Lange paced the first act nicely.  I hope he took more flexible tempi in the last hour.

Veronika der Lenz ist da: The Comedian Harmonists by Gottfried Greifenhagen must be approaching a record tally of performances, having played virtually non-stop at various venues in Berlin and on tour since 1997.  Four of the original cast members are still with the show, which maintains its freshness, possibly because it has undergone some revisions since its premiere.  My visit this past weekend was the fourth time I’ve seen it since it first opened, and it probably won’t be the last.
Original Comedian Harmonists ca. 1931

There are palpable reasons why this show keeps running.  The guys in The 12 Tenors and the guns behind them would be well advised to see it and learn something. They could, for example, sing a capella without microphones in ways that only tenors can articulate effectively.  Even in a theater as large as Tipi, they could be heard just fine without amplification.  They could also bring unaccompanied scat (for 12 tenor voices!) to an exciting new level.  


Eighty years after their roman candle lit up the world, The Comedian Harmonists still offer boy bands like The 12 Tenors golden opportunities to aurify what they’re pissing away. 

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