Travelogue LVII: Bayreuth IV: Ring

Frank Castorf's Ring production: Euro-trash or a provocative examination of capitalism, greed, US-Germany relations, etc. etc? Here, the final act of Siegfried under a socialistic Mount Rushmore.

Frank Castorf’s Ring production: Euro-trash or a provocative examination of capitalism, oil, US-Germany relations, etc. etc? Here, the final act of Siegfried under a socialistic Mount Rushmore. (All Photos)

August 31, 2015 And just like that, the curtain closed on the final act of Götterdämmerung and we were applauding, partly out of enthusiasm and partly out of relief, fifteen hours of music and bad seats behind us, and then we walked down the five flights of steps from the Galarie one last time and drank one more glass of wine and took the taxi back to the hostel. “Ah well,” said the man who sat next to me through all four operas, “I suppose it’s time to leave the Magic Mountain and re-enter the real world.” Indeed.

Götterdãmmerung: the Gibichungs are owners of a Döner shop somewhere in the slums of Berlin.

Götterdãmmerung: the Gibichungs are owners of a Döner shop somewhere in the slums of Berlin.

I think, in the end, it will be the smaller moments that will stick with me the most. Like standing behind the brass players, close enough to touch them, as they played Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s theme on the balcony in the rain at the end of an intermission. Or like our picnics on the lawn, and the local Bayreuther who walked by every day at precisely 6:30 with a big, fat, drooling, wheezing, entirely self-satisfied bulldog, to the general disgust of the ball-gowned Festival guests.

Or walking back in a torrential downpour after the best Siegfried I had heard in my life, with Anders from Denmark and Philip and Thomas from Germany, to drip-dry and drink cheap wine in some sketchy Turkish restaurant next to the train station, and talking and talking until the restaurant owner threw us out.

Or the sudden enlightenment from talking to more knowledgeable Wagnerians in between acts. So that’s why it’s set on Alexanderplatz! And that’s the reason for the dynamic between Siegfried and the Forest Bird. It’s not just regie-trash, something is actually being said! Clarity through exchange, there.

Siegfried and the Forest Bird on pre-reunification Alexanderplatz.

Siegfried and the Forest Bird on pre-reunification Alexanderplatz.

As cheesy as it sounds, I suppose it really all did come down to the people in the end–those crazy, passionate, snobby, suffering, over-dressed, opinionated, cynical-yet-somehow-endearing Festival-goers.

There was the gentleman behind me, for instance, who had sat in the Festspielhaus 79 times starting in 1961 and could remember the most minute details about every production he had seen. All that, while wearing full Bavarian dress: Lederhosen, red-and-white checked shirt, cap with feather.

Or the overly zealous Asian in front of me, who wept over a dog-eared copy of the libretto in between acts and booed the production until he was hoarse. Or the James Levine look-alike (I swear, it was this guy!) beside him, who took it as his personal duty to drown out the boos with so many enthusiastic BRAVIs that he almost fell over the balcony. And on and on and on…..

At any rate, I’ll be back.

Brünnhilde and the Rhine Maidens in the closing scene of Götterdãmmerung, against a backdrop of the New York Stock Exchange, previously the wrapped Reichstag.

Brünnhilde and the Rhine Maidens in the closing scene of Götterdãmmerung, against a backdrop of the New York Stock Exchange, previously the wrapped Reichstag.

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Travelogue LVI: Bayreuth III: Wagner City

Wagner-City

Wagner-City

August 29, 2015 Even 130 years after Wagner’s death, Bayreuth belongs entirely to him. The city is beautiful, but the atmosphere is strange: part cult, part kitsch, part ever-present and often-disturbing history. Certainly, there are other dignitaries who feature in local history–Franz Liszt, Jean Paul Richter, etc.–but they pale beside the Festival and everything associated with it. The influence of the Great Master is still inescapable.

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Above, Villa Wahnfried, the home King Ludwig built for the Wagner family in Bayreuth. The name means freedom from illusion–I have always wondered what Wagner meant by that.

The Villa is a peaceful and lovely place, backed by a gorgeous park full of flowing water and walking paths. During Wagner’s time, and for many decades afterwards, it was a place of pilgrimage for the world’s artistic and intellectual elite, full of art and discussion and beauty.

Wagner's grave, directly behind Wahnfried. To the side, the graves of his beloved dogs.

Wagner’s grave, directly behind Wahnfried. To the side, the graves of his beloved dogs.

Of course, Wahnfried is not entirely unproblematic: during the 1930s, Hitler lived part-time with the Wagner family in a small house next to the villa. Richard himself was at that point long dead, but the Führer and everything he stood for were welcomed with open arms by his children and wife Cosima.

Statue of King Ludwig, and the fresco above the door: Wagner in the center as Wotan, Cosima on one side and the opera singer  Schröder-Devrient on the other representing Tragedy and Music, and his son Siegfried.

Statue of King Ludwig, and the fresco above the door: Wagner in the center as Wotan, Cosima on one side and the opera singer Schröder-Devrient on the other representing Tragedy and Music, and his young son Siegfried.

The park behind Wahnfried, looking towards the Residenz.

The park behind Wahnfried, looking towards the Residenz.

Back in the city, Wagner becomes a selling-point, a way to draw in tourists and maximize your selling power. Stick a Wagner bust in your window, or name your breakfast specials after Der Ring des Nibelungen, and the crowds will come. Much of this sort of advertising strays into kitsch, which is somehow hilarious and endearing at the same time.

A wonderful old book store featuring everything one could ever want on Wagner: biographies and libretti, orchestral scores and old Festpiel programs...

A wonderful old book store featuring everything one could ever want on Wagner: biographies and libretti, orchestral scores and old Festspiel programs…

Breakfast specials at the cafè named after Wagner operas--"Siegfried" and "Meistersinger."

Breakfast specials at the cafè named after Wagner operas–“Siegfried” and “Meistersinger.”

Valkyrie-Street

Half of the street signs in the city are named after characters in the operas, or after Wagner’s family members. Here, Valkyrie-Street.

Even the pharmacies are named after Wagner!

Even the pharmacies are named after Wagner! Here, Parsifal, his last opera.

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During the Festival, the black market for opera tickets is booming. Here, Siegfried and Götterdämerung tickets for sale.

During the Festival, the black market for opera tickets booms. Above, Siegfried and Götterdämerung tickets for sale.

Wagner-windows. Here, a tobacco shop with tiny Wagner doll. Cute, oder?

Wagner-window I. Here, a tobacco shop with tiny Wagner doll. Cute, oder?

Jewelry shop where you can buy "Der Ring," rofl. "Dein Gold" (Your Gold) instead of "Rheingold" (first opera of the Ring Cycle), get it??

Wagner-window II. Jewelry shop where you can buy “Der Ring,” rofl. “Dein Gold” (Your Gold) instead of “Rheingold” (first opera of the Ring Cycle), get it??

Hair salon with Wagner bust and score of Tristan und Isolde. I have no idea, either.

Wagner-window III. Hair salon with Wagner bust and score of Tristan und Isolde. I have no idea, either.

Reverse-advertising. "In this house lived Richard Wagner--never."

Reverse-advertising. “In this house lived Richard Wagner–never.”

Siegfried in one direction, Festival Hill in the other.

Siegfried in one direction, Festival Hill in the other.

Despite a complicated past and kitschy present, however, Bayreuth is lovely–relaxed festival atmosphere, full of beautiful cars and well-dressed opera-goers eating in the open air cafès and reading Wagner libretti in the parks. The whole city has a sort of holiday air, a feeling of being removed from the rest of the world, shut away in a tiny universe dedicated to the power of music.

Festival atmosphere--open-air cafés, cappuccinos and ice-cream and late-afternoon walks.

Festival atmosphere–open-air cafés, cappuccinos and ice-cream and late-afternoon walks.

Travelogue LV: Bayreuth II: Festspielhügel

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August 24, 2015 Three operas down, two to go. I’m in Bayreuth, people, and I still can’t quite believe it. The afternoon walks up to the Festspielhügel (Festival Hill), the darkness before the music starts, the glass of wine afterwards–it all seems so normal, like this isn’t one of the most extraordinary experiences in human existence. But then again, I can’t stop smiling, and I have to restrain myself from geeking out at various inopportune moments. Girl, you are at the f%$#@ Festspiele.

In the end, though, Bayreuth is a strange and contradictory place.

On the one hand, the atmosphere is all very relaxed and playful. The weather is gorgeous, and the intermissions last an hour so you have time to walk into town and eat dinner. Or, if you are as [impoverished and] boss as Katie and I, you spread out a 15-Euro picnic right in front of the Festspielhaus. You get to know the people who sit next to you every night and exchange stories about art and music and life in general. You sleep in the next day at the youth hostel and spend the afternoon before the performance going to book stores and giggling over the Wagner kitsch all over the city. You walk through the gardens up to the opera house an hour early so you have time to admire/creep on the extraordinarily well-dressed Europeans who drop 2,000 Euros on a week in Bayreuth, with their Gucci bags and dinner reservations at some five-star restaurant during the intermissions. Take the taxi into town, take the taxi back an hour later.

The fashion, too, is delightful. I knew people dressed up for Bayreuth, but I wasn’t expecting tuxedos and ball gowns, not during the last week of a non-premiere production. In the last few days, however, we have seen it all–five-inch-heels and parasols, black ties and polished wing-tips, silk handkerchiefs that match the dress that match the purse. Of course some of it strays horribly (hilariously!) into kitsch–poofy pink princess gowns from the 80s, etc. In the end, though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much genuine elegance and sartorial beauty in one place in my life. People–adults!–revel in the chance to play dress up and be seen.

Parasols abounded.

Parasols abounded.

Carrying the mandatory cushion (bring your own!). Wooden fold-down seats become incredibly uncomfortable after the first three hours of music.

Heatedly discussing the finer points of the evening’s Tristan, mandatory seat-cushion in hand (bring your own!). Wooden fold-down chairs become incredibly uncomfortable after about the first three hours of music.

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View from above.

View from above. That yellow suit, though.

Dapper.

Wind-swept dapper.

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The spoils: Fancy handbag, 10 Euro flutes of champagne, Reclam-edition of the libretto.

The spoils: Fancy handbag, 10-Euro flutes of champagne, Reclam-edition of the libretto.

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View through the Festspielhaus doors.

View through the Festspielhaus doors, right before I got taken out by the No-Photography-Inside-the-Festspielhaus police.

On the other hand, though, Bayreuth is not really a pleasant place at all. I don’t think I have ever been surrounded by such a high concentration of genuine snobbery in my life.

That means that afterwards, you don’t revel the beauty you just experienced and reflect on the fact that you, in your designer gown and high heels, are one of the most privileged people on the planet. No, you critique the Brühnhilde’s upper register (Where’s Birgit Nilsson when you need her?) and deplore the flatness of the tenor (Botha is great, but really, can’t he change it up a bit?) and absolutely hate on the production (Regie-trash! Euro-trash! Skandale!! Oh, for the 1950s and the days of Wolfgang Wagner!!). Of course it is not all bad, but even your praise must be critical and highly informed at all times (The direction of the brass section was excellent, but of course nothing in comparison to Solti. Oh, you don’t like Solti either? Well anyway, Botha’s Winterstürme was lovely, although that hardly makes up for his botching of the Wälse earlier in the act).

The amount of sheer expertise amongst the opera-goers is staggering. These people know their Wagner, or at least know how to pretend like they do, and can talk the talk like there’s no tomorrow.

All of which, honestly, is mostly fine with me–I love a good snobby opera rant once in a while. But in the end, I miss the pure, unadulterated awe with which I encountered Wagner for the first time. Naive and a bit blind, perhaps, but full of appreciation and real joy–isn’t that the best way to encounter great art?

Visitors are confronted with the more troubling aspects of Bayreuth's past: a permanent display on antisemitism and Hitler in Bayreuth stands directly in front of the opera house. This is Wagner, after all--things are never uncomplicated.

Visitors are confronted with the more troubling aspects of Bayreuth’s past: a permanent display on antisemitism and Hitler in Bayreuth stands directly in front of the opera house. This is Wagner, after all–things are never uncomplicated.

Ultimately, there is an element of passionate suffering, of Leidenschaft (Leidenschaft=passion, leiden=to suffer) about it all. It’s almost comic, actually. If you don’t have a ticket, you stand around outside with an absolutely forlorn expression on your face and a “Suche Karte” (“Looking for a ticket”) sign, until some merciless person deigns to part with the last act of Götterdämmerung for three times the selling price. You act all friendly towards your neighbor until he or she opens up a cough drop in the middle of the performance. God forbid that the sacred space be polluted by the sound of a Halls wrapper!! The entire Galarie suffers together until the end of the act!!

The physical space of the Festspielhaus itself contributes to this atmosphere of martyrdom. Simple architecture, straight-backed wooden seats, no air conditioning–it is clear that the focus here is on THE MUSIC and not on the physical gratification of the Festspiel-goers. After five hours in a cramped seat in 85-degree heat, the level of self-mortification is absolutely saintly.

In the end, though, the lack of luxury is a very good thing, and fits in with Wagner’s radical vision for Bayreuth as a place of direct confrontation with artistic beauty unspoiled by physical indulgence. He was the first to darken the house during performances, after all, the first to place the emphasis fully on the stage and not on being seen by those around you. Bravo, there.

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The orchestra’s brass section plays motives from the opera to call guests back to their seats at the end of intermission.

And despite everything, of course, it really is all about the music. That’s why I’m here–that’s why I keep coming back to Wagner, all questionable decadence and politics aside. There is a power and a beauty there that gets under my skin.

So last night during Tristan und Isolde, sitting behind a column with my 10-Euro ticket, the cough drop wrappers and botched high notes and arrogant snobbery paled absolutely beside the music, welling up from the covered orchestra pit in the darkness below and slowly, slowly changing the world.

Walking in the gardens surrounding the Festival House during intermission.

Walking in the gardens surrounding the Festival House during intermission.

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Travelogue LII: Bayreuth I: Richard Wagner

Reading list for Bayreuth 2015.

Reading list for Bayreuth 2015. Mann and Nietzsche are, in my opinion, still the very best Wagnerians.

August 15, 2015 In a week I will be at the Richard Wagner Opera Festival in Bayreuth, Germany. Six days, five operas, some twenty hours of music. The tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen and Tristan und Isolde to boot.

For those readers who may not be aware of just how impossibly cool the preceding few sentences are–the Bayreuth festivals were started in 1876 by Wagner himself, in the theater he designed specifically for the performance of his operas. Today, the wait-list for tickets is about ten years, unless you know the right people and happen to get insanely lucky. Which, apparently, I did. What.

For me, it’s the great closing of the circle, the realization of years of Mythos and fantasy and love-from-afar. After all, it’s Wagner’s fault that I am here in Germany in the first place. When people ask me how I ended up studying comparative literature in Mainz, I always go back to July 4th, 2008–I had just turned sixteen and was awkward, precocious, tomboyish, and painfully nerdy. There was a flea market after the local parade and I bought a copy of Das Rheingold (the first opera of the Ring) for a dollar because the picture on the front was cool and because it looked intellectual. At that point in my life I was in my phase of checking books out from the library because they seemed scholarly and forcing myself to read them no matter how dull the contents. Indeed.

Anyway, I listened to the entire CD as soon as I got home and was not overly impressed. Dark, Teutonic, incomprehensible. This opera thing, though, was new and fascinating. I spent the next six months becoming increasingly obsessed–first the Italians, then the French, Mozart, Britten, Strauss. And when I finally got around to playing Das Rheingold again, on some freezing December evening in Vermont, I was suddenly completely, utterly, hopelessly hooked. Wagner–where had he been all my life? His particular brand of disturbing beauty hit me like a brick wall.

And thus by the time I graduated from high school my German vocabulary was enormous, and also entirely impractical. Words like “love-death,” “springtide,” and “gloaming” are all of utmost importance to the hardcore Wagnerian, but, as I discovered within my first actual five minutes in Germany, are absolutely useless in all other situations.

All the same, Wagner’s work stood at the center of my intellectual existence. In him I found the beginning of the drive, the love, the energy that is still behind everything I do. The operas propelled me back to his own sources–to Goethe, Beethoven, Shakespeare, the Greeks–and forward to his skeptics and lovers–Nietzsche, Mahler, Berg, Mann. I reveled above all in his critics, found his oeuvre suspect and horrible and bewitching all at once.  To difficult to love, too seductive to hate.

And then I walked onto my college campus and ran into a German professor on my first day who told me I should sign up for his introductory language class, and that was that. The floodgates opened.

 

The shrine to opera, or rather to Wagner, in my childhood bedroom. With full orchestral scores, Furtwängler and Solti, and posters from the Otto Schenk Ring. So, so nerdy.

A very old photo: the shrine to opera, but mostly to Wagner, in my childhood bedroom. With full orchestral scores, Furtwängler and Solti, and posters from the Otto Schenk Ring. It doesn’t get much more nerdy than that.

Now, it’s been years since I have listened to the Ring in its entirety, laying on my back under a down comforter in my freezing childhood bedroom, German-English libretto propped open on my chest. One CD a night, fifteen nights in a row, until fire and water had destroyed the world and all the gods were dead. That experience–the circle of light surrounded by darkness, the music through my headphones, the whole world flying open–was my childhood, perhaps the defining  experience of my teenage years. And now I’m going back.

It’s not that I haven’t listened to Wagner in the meantime–there was the crazy regietheater Walküre in San Francisco, the Parsifal HD broadcast from the Met which silenced a carload of college students. And, in possibly the most remarkable experience of my existence to date, the Tristan und Isolde in France where I fell in love and learned more about myself in five hours than I had in the past 23 years. But the total immersion, the intensity, the feeling that Wagner was there, tangible, at the very forefront of my existence–I thought I had left that behind me when I packed my bags for college and left home.

I think, though, that it is all going to come back. Actually, re-reading and re-thinking myself into the Ring‘s mythos over the past week, I am finding that it perhaps never went anywhere at all. Below the surface, yes, but intact.

At any rate, Leitmotiv is once more keeping me awake at night. And I am delighted.

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Travelogue XLVIII: Johannisnacht

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Cabaret in Mainz  during the Johannisfest.

June 20, 2015 Summer is the time of festivals in Germany. It seems like every town has one, or several, from the tiniest Dorf to the largest city–a weekend of live music and dancing and wine (or beer, depending on which part of Germany you are in) and all sorts of unhealthy-but-delicious German culinary specialties.

In Mainz, there’s the Johannisnacht festival at the end of June. Things are a little different in Mainz than in the rest of Germany, I think–a bit more intensive, all-encompasing, more Dionysian perhaps. The Fastnacht spirit isn’t just limited to a couple weeks in February.

In Würzburg, for instance, the yearly Kiliani Festival takes place outside of town, on neat and properly contained fairgrounds. In Mainz, the Johannisnacht takes up half the dang town, with the bus schedule screwed up for days and the entire Inner City full of stages and lights and stands selling cocktails and bratwurst. And the Meenzers know how to throw a party–some 250,000 people attend the festival over the course of four days, despite the pouring rain and semi-arctic temperatures this year.

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One of the hundreds of local vineyards who set up a stand for the weekend...

One of the hundreds of local vineyards who set up a stand for the weekend…

Schlager behind the cathedral.

Schlager behind the cathedral.

Music plays an enormous role at the summer festivals. At the Mainzer Johannisnacht, there are four main stages and dozens of concerts over the course of a long weekend–from oldies and brass band to rap and hip-hop, and everything in between.

And Schlager. The Schlager concerts are inescapable. The genre is distinctly German–kitchy, danceable, inescapably catchy pop ballads with roots that go back to the operettas of the 1920s and 30s. Many of the songs sung today date from the 1950s or earlier and have been re-written and re-mixed and re-sung hundreds of times in the ensuing decades. Like Country Music in America, the texts are mostly about drinking and falling into and out of love, but also about the simple, unadulterated joy of being alive. The world of Schlager is full of schöne Tage (beautiful days). In the words of one Fastnacht hit, Eins kann uns keiner nehmen und das ist die pure Lust am Leben. There is one thing nobody can take from us, and that is the pure joy of life…

And everyone knows all the words, it seems. During the Johannisnacht, one has the feeling that half of Mainz is standing in front of the stage, young and old alike, singing and crying and smoking and drinking beer and dancing in that awkward-but-infectious way that only Germans can.

I suppose part of me will always be the snobby operagoer who drinks champagne in the intermission and can talk for hours about a particular interpretation of Mahler’s 2nd. But every once in a while, you just need to link arms with a bunch of crazy Meenzers singing “Traum von Amsterdam” and let it all out.

And anyway, you can’t dance at the opera.

This guy managed to wear lederhosen, drink beer, twerk, and sing all at the same time. That takes skill, folks.

This guy managed to wear lederhosen, drink beer, twerk, and sing Schlager all at the same time. That takes skill, folks.

Despite the pouring rain...

Despite the pouring rain…

80s Rock in the pouring rain.

80s rock.

Cabaret. In some past life, I'm pretty much certain I was a Kabarettistin--coattails and lipstick, glass of red wine in one hand and cigarette in the other. 

Cabaret. In some past life, I’m pretty much certain I was a Kabarettistin–coattails and lipstick, glass of red wine in one hand and cigarette in the other.

Travelogue XLVI: Kafka and Jazz in Prague

Franz Kafka memorial

Franz Kafka memorial.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJune 5, 2015 My first day in Prague was all Franz Kafka–the museum, his house and apartments, the monument to him near the Jewish Cemetery.

I was in some sort of strange over-excited mood all afternoon. “You’re shaking, Emily,” said Ralf at lunch. “You need to calm down and chill out. Take some deep breaths.” But I didn’t want to chill out. I’ve never been good at that, anyway, and especially not in the city of The Trial and The Metamorphoses and all those crazy, crazy stories….

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The house Kafka was born in, now a café. 

So, Kafka’s Prague. Unlike many of the intellectuals and artists of his time, he had no enormous international career–in fact, he hardly travelled at all, except for his stays at various sanatoriums and Kurorte. Even within Prague, his movements were limited–on a map, his various apartments and offices trace a tiny circle in the heart of the Old City and Jewish Quarter. Below, a few small impressions from my walks in the area.

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Absinthe, which is banned or not readily available in other European countries, is reveled in in Prague.

Absinthe, which is banned or not readily available in other European countries, is reveled in in Prague.

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Marionettes in the Old City.

A dude with a really big snake...

A bit surreal.

The city was hot, hot, the buildings and streets still releasing heat long after the sun went down. That evening, I went back to the Café Louvre–not to the light-filled upstairs salon I had eaten in earlier, but to the Jazz Club and bar downstairs. Dark rooms, red velvet upholstery, a woman in a black dress singing jazz standards, cocktails and red wine in between sets, the heat–it all had something of the cabaret about it, of old German films, and perhaps a bit of Steppenwolf, too.

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Travelogue XLI: PEGIDA and Beauty in Dresden

March 30, 2015 Dresden is a stunning city. People call it the Elbflorenz–Florence on the Elb River, the Jewel Box, Germany’s version of Italian Baroque.

I arrived at the train station in Dresden after the DAAD Conference in Jena, dropped my suitcase at the youth hostel, and headed for the city center. When I stepped off the tram at the Theaterplatz, the force of beauty hit me like a brick wall. So much pure loveliness needs no justification, no reason for being. It just is, and you stand there and blink back tears in the pouring rain, and are fully outside of yourself.

Perhaps even more staggering, however, is the fact that it is almost entirely all new–the entire old city was gutted by the American and British bombs that fell in February, 1945. Twenty-five thousand deaths, most of them of civilians, were recorded after the bombings, with thousands more left uncounted. The city as it exists today is a monument both to the horror of war and to the human capacity for hope and industry, I think. Restoration began soon after the war ended, and continues to this day–renovations of the Frauenkirche cathedral, for instance, were only completed in 2005.

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It was a weekend of beauty, of unabashed reveling in Western culture at its most stunning. I photographed statues and frescoes and saw the Old Masters and the German Romantics in the art museums. I stood in line at the box office and scored a student ticket (13 Euros!) for a Bach oratorio at the Semperoper. “It’s the most beautiful opera house in the world,” said the woman who sold me the ticket. Afterwards, I was almost ready to believe her.

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The Semperoper.

But of course, things aren’t so simple. This is Germany, after all.

Besides the museums and the opera and the Rococo architecture, Dresden is also the seat of PEGIDAPatriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West–the far-right political organization that has been hosting demonstrations in Dresden and throughout Germany since October. The group has disturbing overtones of xenophobia, hate speech, and nationalism, which is particularly problematic given Germany’s history.  The founder of PEGIDA, Lutz Bachmann, resigned in January after a photograph of him dressed as Adolf Hitler went viral. I mean, really?? That’s Western culture at its most pitiful, right there.

Although the number of protesters has fallen drastically from the roughly 25,000/week at the beginning of PEGIDA’s existence, Dresden is still something of a pilgrim site. The weekly “evening strolls,” as the group describes the demonstrations, still attract thousands of participants from across Germany. And unlike in other cities, there isn’t a counter-demonstration, or at least not one that I could see. In Frankfurt, the counter-protesters often outnumber the PEGIDA supporters twenty to one. There was none of that here.

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Incredibly surreal, to be drinking tea in some gorgeous cafe with riot police outside the window.

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An hour before the demonstration was to start, the police were already in place.

At the same time, the official position of Dresden as a city was made very clear. There were public banners and signs throughout the city calling for understanding and openness, demanding that Dresden wake up and consider the dignity of all human beings.

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Across from the Semperoper: “Doors open, hearts open, eyes open.”

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A three-story-tall banner across the street from the demonstration itself. “The worth of human kind is given into your hands. Protect it! It falls with you, and it will rise with you.”

At the actual demonstration, there were speeches broadcast by  loud-speaker, and hundreds of banners and hand-painted signs. The sheer ugliness of some of it contrasted starkly and ironically with the beauty of the surroundings.

A small selection of the signs:

“Deutschland wehrt sich”–“Germany is defending herself.”

“Klagt nicht, kämpft!”–“Don’t complain, fight!”

“Wir sind das Volk”–“We are the People.” At the counter-demonstrations in Frankfurt, this is turned around into “Wirr ist das Volk”–“The People are just confused.”

“Erst wird’s bunt, dann…”–“First diversity, then [a picture of a bloody hand grenade].”

“Wir lassen uns nicht mehr von Minderheiten terrorisieren!”–“We aren’t going to let ourselves be terrorized by minorities any more!”

The minorities mentioned above, apparently, include the LGBTQ crowd as well. As one speaker said, “We don’t want the homo-trans-whatever-sexual minority to slime their way into our schools and traumatize our children with their shit-talk!!” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry after that one.

And the flags–I saw more of them in an hour than I had seen in the past 8 months, the soccer championships included. In Germany, unlike in America, you just don’t display the flag like that unless you have just won the World Cup, or unless you are trying to come across as problematically nationalistic at best and as a Nazi at worst.

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Riot gear.

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I saw more German flags in an hour than I had seen during the past 8 months in Germany, soccer world championships included.

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Departing for the march through the old city.

In the end, it was all a strange mixture of laughable and horrifying. The protestors, at least on the day I was there, weren’t much of hooligans–but rather neatly-dressed middle-aged middle-class, perhaps disappointed and discontent, but not really the stuff of revolution.

So I never felt like I was in danger–but it was an unnerving experience none the less, to find myself in the middle of thousands of people who share a worldview that fundamentally clashes with my own.

In the end, though, as I have written elsewhere, this is one of the main issues Germany is talking about today. Watching the demonstration in Dresden felt a bit like being a part of history.

Travelogue XVII: Bonn and Beethoven

bonn_beethovenBeethoven statue on the town square.

2. November, 2014 So many cities here are defined by their connection to specific artists and thinkers in Germany’s past. Mainz, for instance, is the Johannes Gutenberg city–Bayreuth is Richard Wagner’s–Frankfurt (along with Weimar, of course) belongs to Goethe. One has the feeling that these figures are still very much present, as much a part of local rhythms as the marketplace, theater, Rathaus. There are streets and universities and drugstores named after them, statues on every square, museums and memorial associations that hold lectures and concert series in their honor. The past is exceedingly alive.

Bonn, where I was last weekend after the DAAD Conference in Cologne, is the city of Beethoven–he was born there, and spent the first 22 years of his life in the city before moving to Vienna. I was able to visit his house, which was converted to an archival museum in his honor over a century ago.

Surreal, to see Beethoven’s pianos arranged side-by-side, his reading glasses, his viola, the organ he played on as a boy. On his desk, there was a hand-written copy of a poem by Schiller, who had himself taken it from some ancient inscription in Egypt:

Ich Bin, was da ist
Ich Bin alles, was ist,
was war und was sein wird
Kein sterblicher Mensch
hat meinen Schleier
aufgehoben.

I am what is there.
I am everything that is
that was and that will be.
No mortal man
has lifted my veil.

Beethoven had written it out on a slip of paper and it sat on his desk for years. A sort of life-motto, according to the elderly gentleman who worked in the museum.

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Downstairs, there were newsreels from 1945, showing American soldiers entering the house, half-destroyed, and removing furniture and instruments covered in ashes. And there were pages from a guestbook dating back to 1890, containing the signatures and notes of the hundreds of famous men and women who had been there–Heinrich Böll, the Clintons, Isaac Stern, Indira Ghandi, Claudio Abbado, Joachim Gauck, the Dalai Llama. They were humbled, they wrote, and inspired, and grateful. Strange, to be sharing an experience with so many luminaries.

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So there it was: standing in the house of yet another giant.

Beethoven aside, Bonn is a fascinating city. It was the de facto capital of West Germany until the fall of the Berlin wall, and remained the seat of government until 1999. Today, over twenty years later, the main evidence of its former position is the excessively extensive public transportation system–S-Bahn, buses, and subways galore, and a huge Autobahn that cuts right through the middle of the city.

Even during Bonn’s time as capital, the city’s position did not go unquestioned: due to its relatively small size it was referred to, more or less jokingly, as the Bundeshauptstadt ohne nennenswertes Nachtleben (Federal capital without nightlife worthy of the name) or the Bundesdorf (Federal Village). To me, it didn’t seem to fit: after having visited Berlin, the current capital of Germany, it’s hard for me to imagine Germany’s government anywhere else. That restless and crazy city, as I have written about before, seems to me to be supremely suited for the capital of a country like Germany. Bonn just doesn’t make one think in the way that Berlin does.

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All the same, though, it’s a lovely place, especially at this time of year. It’s foliage season in Germany, which is automatically noteworthy to me, since I grew up in the one spot on earth known perhaps above all others for its autumns. Here, the colors are more muted than anything in Vermont, but still grand, especially in the vineyards along the Rhine. In Bonn, the yellow-gold-orange color scheme of many of the buildings complemented the leaves perfectly.

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Of course, though, on the way back to Mainz a fog bank rolled in, and it’s been damp, drippy, and freezing ever since. Welcome to winter in the Pfalz!

Locus Amoenus II: Theater

Locus Amoenus, Latin: the lovely or pleasing place. A common trope in Ancient Roman literature, usually a garden or woodland–a spot of inherent safety, comfort, and striking beauty. The concept features in works by authors as early as Homer, and it was reveled in by the later pastoral poets before being passed on to the writers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Locus amoenus is a place to retreat to, often with overtones of Elysium on earth.

Staatstheater_Wiesbaden_foyer028Foyer of the Staatstheater in Wiesbaden, just over the Rhein. 

Like the farm kitchen, the first of my personal loci amoeni I wrote about, the theater is no Vergilian garden–but a spot for me equally as transfixing, equally as bound up with memory and childhood and beauty. Like the kitchen, the theater is something that transcends all cultural boundaries: the moment before the curtain goes up or the conductor comes on stage is always the same, whether one is in Munich or in some drafty town hall in Vermont.

My love of the theater started when I turned 15, and began working as an usher in the next tiny town over. The Barre Opera House–certainly no Baroque jewel, but it had white molding and red velvet curtains and four box seats (no one sat in them anymore, but they existed!). To me, it was an entirely enchanting place. I would always work the balcony so I could use the secret spiral staircase in the wings, and lean out over the polished wooden railings, and pretend that I was in Vienna in 1791 for the premiere of Mozart’s Magic Flute. I loved the audiences, too–the aging, tenacious contingent of small-town Vermonters who could talk with equal ease about the local milk prices and the symphony on the program. Most evenings I had the feeling I was the only one in the place younger than 75, and I collected compliments from old men wearing immaculately pressed suits that must have been new sometime in the late sixties. There where two operas a year, and I remember driving home after Le Nozze di Figaro through the worst blizzard of 2008, drunk on Mozart for the first time in my life.

Writing of his own childhood, Thomas Mann says, “I can never forget the hours of deep, solitary happiness in the midst of the theater crowd–hours full of horror and delight of the nerves and intellect, of insight into things of the most vast and moving significance, such as only this art affords.” He, as always, gets it just right.

6758627-Staatstheater_Mainz_MainzStaatstheater in Mainz, with weekly market. 

Still, America–and small-town New England above all–isn’t really made for theater-goers. Once we got older, my sister and I went to a handful of operas and plays a year, usually traveling over an hour and paying 35$ or more for a spot in the cheap seats. I called up the opera houses every year to ask about student discounts, but never got anywhere.

The difficulties come in large part from the  infrastructure behind the arts in America, which has a distinct air of precariousness. Funding usually comes from audiences and donors alone: if no one buys the tickets, the theater closes its doors. On one hand, such a close relationship between the audience and stage is good–on the other, however, the entire set-up keeps ticket prices high and stifles the creativity of directors and actors. One need only look at the Metropolitan Opera, currently on the verge of bankruptcy due in large part to the “risky new productions” (read: non-traditional, moderately avant-garde) brought in by the new manager Peter Gelb.

IMG_0725The Alte Oper in Frankfurt. The inscription reads, “To the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.”

In Germany, the entire system runs on different terms, and better ones, I think. This is truly the land of theater: every small town has at least one, and an opera house, and a symphony to boot. The amount of productions even the smallest of theaters is able to put on over the course of a season is staggering to me. For instance: at the Staatstheater in Mainz, certainly no metropolis, there will 78 performances of some 30 different works in December alone, spread between several different stages and often performing simultaneously with one another. In America, such a vast program would be inconceivable anywhere other than a very large city. Here, between Wiesbaden and Mainz, two small towns within ten minutes of each other, I could go to the theater every night for the next two years.

The financial precariousness is entirely removed, too: even the smallest theaters in Germany receive hefty funding at the state or municipal level. It’s part of the mentality–being able to go to the theater in one’s own town is a point of pride, a vitally important facet of local culture and identity. At an artistic level, this financial situation means that almost anything goes on stage, for better or for worse (mostly for better, in my opinion). Directors can be as trashy or shocking or ground-breaking as they wish, without worrying about offending the sensibilities of a conservative audience. And for students, it’s an absolute windfall. With my card from the University I can see anything in Mainz for free, and get front-row tickets at pretty much any other theater in Germany for 4-8 €.

IMG_0741Schedules for the next month, hanging above my desk…

And so I go to the theater. There’s a sort of rhythm to it all–dress up, look at train schedules, run to the station and read on the train, wait in line at the box office, look around the city a bit during intermission (intermissions in Germany are long, because EVERYONE has to drink a glass of Sekt [champagne] and eat a Brezel!), rant about the whole thing on the way home. It’s exciting, and utterly new.

Staatstheater_Kaskadenbrunnen0106Staatstheater in Wiesbaden by night.

Some highlights of the past two weeks:

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (or Nora in German, because Puppenheim just sounds weird). In Frankfurt, where we gawked at the sky scrapers and tried without success to find Goethe’s house. The production: shattering, minimalistic, with spotlights shone directly into the audience and rock music turned up too loud. It’s Germany; everything’s designed to make you uncomfortable. It’s astonishing to me how a work some 150 years old can be so relevant.

Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, performed in the local museum in a room full of frescoes and statues from ancient Greece. Mahler is absolutely wrenching live.

Elfriede Jelinek’s brand-new Rein Gold in Wiesbaden. Jelinek is insane; I’ve been obsessed with her ever since my professor told me I must on no account, read her novels, because they were borderline pornographic filth. She’s everything I love about German literature: edgy and hard-hitting, willing to ask the hardest of questions. Rein Gold was a Bühnenessay (Stage-essay; the first of its genre according to the authoress)–a witty, often disturbing meditation on Richard Wagner’s Ring, taking up the themes of capitalism and heroism in modern Germany. Lots of references to the current political situation that I didn’t understand, lots of references to Wagner that I did.

Travelogue XIII: Didgeridoo auf dem Marktplatz

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30. September, 2014 I have trying to come up with the proper post in which to attach this picture, but in vain. So here it is by itself–a didgeridoo player sitting under a statue of St. Boniface, in front of the thousand-year-old cathedral in downtown Mainz. Bam. I find the juxtaposition delightful.

It seems like there is always something worth seeing in the marketplace. In the past few weeks, I have run across performance by an African band, a runway fashion show, someone blowing car-sized bubbles to the delight of about 30 small children, hundreds of people in Bavarian Tracht (traditional dress) drinking free wine from the local winery (said wine was only for the Bavarians, I was informed, after hopefully trying to procure a glass for myself), the local theater festival complete with an orchestra and people in full costume, and a lecture on quantum physics.

The vitality of it all is rather astonishing to someone who spent the first 22 years of her life in a tiny village of 800 people–lovely and real, indeed, but more sleepy than not.