Politics and power, society and manipulation – these are the key issues of Bernhard Lang’s latest “political theatre works”, whose premieres in Hamburg and Dortmund strongly resonated with both public and press: the chamber opera Playing Trump
, commissioned by the Hamburg State Opera with a libretto by Dieter Sperl, musical direction by Emilio Pomàrico and staged by the house’s Intendant Georges Delnon; and the large-scale music theatre Der Hetzer
(The Rabble Rouser), commissioned by the Dortumund Opera with a libretto by the composer based on Shakespeare’s and Verdi’s Otello
, conducted by Philipp Armbruster and staged by the young director Kai Anne Schuhmacher.
Politics and Music Theatre: A return of the theatre of recurrences
A commentary by Bernhard Lang
Some years ago in Heidelberg I took part in a symposium on “political music theatre”, organized by Heribert Germeshausen, in which Achim Freyer, Klaus-Peter Kehr and other renowned directors participated. The reflections of that event gave rise to several music-theatre pieces which are now having their premieres in Hamburg and Dortmund: Cheap Opera #2 Playing Trump
, based on original words of the former US president, and Der Hetzer
(The Rabble Rouser), an adaptation of the highly charged Otello
material of Shakespeare and Boito/Verdi; the latter piece has been expanded with texts by young people and rappers from Dortmund. At the heart of the piece are manipulation, intrigue, mobbing, incitement and machinations with which I feel myself surrounded. At a time in which unbridled egoism is disguised as individual freedom, solidarity is vilified in the media at every opportunity, religions are again used to legitimize butchery by armed forces, and the whole of humanity is compelled to recognize the possibility that indefinite repetition is already at an end, it has apparently become hard to comprehend theatre as an autochthonous protected zone or to pursue New Music as an allotment garden which can remain untouched by all the things just mentioned. This problem is of primary importance to both of these music-theatre pieces; they do not offer answers but perhaps the possibility of opening a discourse, a broader involvement with the issues. Furthermore...I simply had to write these pieces. It was a burning need.
Oper in 4 Akten
Libretto von Bernhard Lang
nach William Shakespeare und Arrigo Boito
Commissioned by the Oper Dortmund
WP: 26.9.2021, Dortmund
World premiere of Der Hetzer, Dortmund 2021
26.9.2021 (WP), 3. & 17.10.2021
, Kai Anne Schuhmacher
(stage dir.), Philipp Armbruster
(mus. dir.), Dortmund
About the work
He stirs up hatred. Against his fellow human beings. Especially against Coltello. Because Coltello is different and he isn’t from here. Then why is he getting ahead, overtaking the others professionally while also winning the beautiful Desirée? Jack Natas finds this intolerable and instigates an intrigue to destroy Coltello. But that’s a dangerous game which ends in a maelstrom of slander, jealousy and murder. The renowned Austrian composer Bernhard Lang created a sensation in 2017 with his overwriting of Wagner’s Parsifal. In Der Hetzer he works with the harrowing, timeless subject of Othello, as handed down by Shakespeare and the Italian composer Verdi’s musical transformation. Lang’s overwriting deals primarily, howevever, with its political relevance to our own time, in which harrassment of the other is no exception. In the intervals between acts, deliberately handled flexibly by Lang, texts by young writers are introduced on stage in Dortmund, created especially for the piece and, delivered as raps, serving as thematic amplification. Bernhard Lang adeptly commingles them with his own jazz-inspired compositional style as well as with the emotionally grippping sound world of Giuseppe Verdi.
Text: Oper Dortmund, published with kind permission by the presenter
"Composer Bernhard Lang’s overwriting of Verdi’s drama of jealousy demonstrates how opera can function today – for younger and older audiences. Both groups acclaimed the 100-minute work at its premiere on Sunday evening in the opera house... The 64-year-old Austrian has composed wonderful music. It’s melodious, colourful, atmospheric, takes an occasional turn into the style of a revue and elicits big emotions... This opera has earned a large public."
Ruhr Nachrichten, 29.09.2021
"Joe Coltello (= Othello), a man of colour, is a refugee rescued from a storm at sea. With his stature and his majestic baritone, Mandla Mndebele lends the character authenticity. He (i.e., Jack Natas/Iago) becomes the scheming xenophobic rabble rouser, exaggerated by the role’s vocal register. David DQ Lee is a nimbly Mephistophelian countertenor of riveting expressive intensity. Instead of his Verdian Credo, he sings a number by Purcell, the dissonantly jangling “Cold Song” from King Arthur, which has in turn achieved pop-cultural status in Klaus Nomi’s version. This fits in perfectly with Bernhard Lang’s overwriting technique."
Salzburger Nachrichten 29.09.2021
"Bernhard Lang has indeed reshaped Verdi’s penultimate opera, with its Shakespearean source also playing a role. The music is lustrous and flexible, often staying close to Verdi but occasionally breaking out into the present day or the English Renaissance, combining full orchestra with electronics, yet also allowing for the simple chirping of the harp. For his German text, Lang uses short sentences, often of no more than three to five words, and frequently repeats them. That results in the action’s distinct intelligibility as well as the aggressive basic tone."
Die Deutsche Bühne, 27.09.2021
"This is really a duel between two outsiders – the piece is also interesting on this level – who could actually have been allies... Both of them, Coltello and Natas, are doubled by rappers, IndiRekt and S.Castro. The opera house has collaborated with a writing workshop from north Dortmund, where texts were created to deal with the topics of hate, racism and love found in Otello and to provide material for the two rappers’ appearances."
WDR 5 Scala, 27.09.2021
World premiere of Der Hetzer, Dortmund 2021
Interview with Bernhard Lang
For the ORPHEUS magazine, Maike Graf spoke with the composer about his compositional principles and related stylistic elements, about the introduction of rap, and the socio-political intentions of his opera commission
Your world premiere of “Der Hetzer” at the Dortmund Opera has been announced as a “rewriting” of Verdi’s “Othello.” Due to the current circumstances we can’t see it yet, but we should certainly talk about it because it raises a few questions! Let’s start though with the fundamentals: What does “rewriting” mean for you?
“Rewriting” is a technique I have been working with since 2007, with the first of my “Monadologies.” On the one hand, I borrowed it from the visual arts, such as from the work of Jonathan Meese for example. On the other, metafilm and experimental art film are also an important point of reference. These works are films about films – that is, existing films are almost recomposed or created anew. I am additionally inspired by the idea of remixes in the DJ scene, where you draw upon what is there rather than playing the role of an inventor who is creating something new in every minute of a work. You end up as somebody who thinks about works.
Score of Der Hetzer
Cheap Opera #2
Musiktheater nach einem Libretto von Dieter Sperl für Stimme, Saxophon, E-Gitarre, zwei Synthesizer, Perkussion und Zuspielung
Commissioned by the Hamburgische Staatsoper GmbH
WP: 20.08.2021, Hamburg
World premiere of Playing Trump, Hamburg 2021
20.08.2021 (WP), 21./22./24./25.08.2021
, Georges Delnon
(stage dir.), Emilio Pomàrico
(mus. dir.), Hamburg
About the work
So banal the man, so dangerous the type. Four years of a U.S. presidency have shown how the world has been - or how it can become. As absurd the speeches and fake news, so symptomatic is the manipulative success. How far has the democratic principle already eroded?
The sellout of decency and humanity, legitimized by 63 million voters? Composer Bernhard Lang and author Dieter Sperl create a panopticon of (un)words and power. Do we have to recognize ourselves in this distorting mirror? What was once possible may soon repeat itself. According to Hegel and Marx, history should always happen twice, first as tragedy, then as farce. Do both take place at the same time today?
Text: Staatsoper Hamburg, veröffentlicht mit freundlicher Genehmigung des Veranstalters
"[…] Bernhard Lang is as much at home in jazz as in the avant garde. The sweep of his music, a suggestive mix of jazz, pop, groove, minimalism and electronics, is generated by motorized patterns and loops, gripping the listener with allusions to the by-products of American music history: marching bands and crime thriller soundtracks, rap, rock, hip-hop and electronic rock, plus the manipulated original sounds of Trump’s speeches including his audiences’ approval."
Süddeutsche Zeitung, 23.08.2021
"The great Austrian composer Lang has written a wonderfully complex work for a band of four players with leader, a cosmos in which presents far more than illustrations of a damaged protagonist and a polarized society in carefully calculated cacophony reflecting politics. The spectrum of America’s image of itself as a nation of music ranges from the marching band and early jazz to present-day rap. Otherwise there is quiet as well as loud onomatopoeia, divine egocentrism. At the Staatsoper under Emilio Pomàrico’s musical direction the music becomes a real event."
DIE WELT, 21.08.2021
"In this insistently forward-driving music, the text leads a life of its own, detaching itself from Trump the person to become the symptom of a system that has squandered trust. In that – and in the musically superb realization – lies the great strength of this evening of Playing Trump."
Die Deutsche Bühne, 23.08.2021
Score of Playing Trump
Photos: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg (Playing Trump), Thomas Jauk, Stage Picture (Der Hetzer)