Art, with Its Sleeves Rolled Up

by Karen Zarker and Sarah Zupko

17 January 2010

The Elbe Philharmonic Hall as it will look in 2012 

See also Hamburg: Germany’s Port of Rock ‘n’ Roll (November 2008)

With its long history as a central point within the Hanseatic League, Hamburg has always been a hard-working metropolis. Built from centuries of trade and business, it’s not a place of landed aristocracy and princes like so many other parts of Germany; rather, Hamburg applies a cerebral “roll up the sleeves approach” to business and culture. You won’t spot a castle or a moat or even an oversized ego in this town, as it’s the work that counts in this port city; high-quality substance is valued over prima donna celebrity.

That sensibility drives the work ethic of the bands toiling on the Reeperbahn as much as it does the longshoremen in the busy harbor on the Elbe River, and it finds it’s reflection in the artistic vision of the Hamburg State Opera (Staatsoper Hamburg), home to the the Hamburg Philharmonic (Philharmoniker Hamburg) and the first public opera house in all of Germany. Indeed, the opera company’s aesthetic is driven by hard work and consummate professionalism on the one hand and accessibility to a larger audience than the standard opera crowd on the other. The Hamburg State Opera has numerous initiatives in place to teach kids about the operatic arts by putting together children’s productions (“Opera piccola”) and they also offer a range of ticket prices, many quite affordable in an auditorium where there really isn’t a bad seat. On their website, they tag their approach as “opera for the people”, and that is reflected in the work and the overall unpretentiousness of the physical opera house itself.

Karen's all business at the construction site.

Karen’s all business at the construction site.

That is what brings us to Hamburg again this year. We’re here for the premiere of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried (October 2009), part of the ambitious, four-part Ring (Der Ring des Nibelungen) cycle that Hamburg is in the process of staging, as well as to get a sneak preview of the Hamburg Philharmonic Hall (Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, opening 2012) —a vision of billowing sails captured in undulating, high-tech glass—that is under construction in the HafenCity in the center of town along the Elbe. Our visit finds us wearing rubber boots and hard hats, standing ankle-deep in chilly water, littered with rusty nails, cigarette butts, and other detritus of a work in progress. This is the new Philharmonic Hall in gestation; still unformed, but well enough along that we easily see its final shape. We stand where the orchestra will be seated and look at the rising, waving walls growing around us. Not a bad seat in the house.

We make our way through a maze of slender supporting pipes as dense as a forest of aspen. The effect of this image—industry with elements of nature, construction which evokes thoughts of destruction—haunts us later, when we’re dressed in sequined jackets, having just enjoyed a glass of champagne. The curtain opens to a decaying, post-industrial landscape; earthly fragments from Valhalla, the land of the gods. This is the stage for Siegfried at the Hamburg State Opera, which is funded, largely, by wealthy, culture-loving merchants of this city, and once had Gustav Mahler at the helm as its artistic director.

If Hamburg were a character, it would not be unlike Richard Wagner himself in that he was largely self-taught and hard working. His vision encompassed not only the musical interpretation of ancient Norse and Germanic myths into the music we know as the Ring but, like a filmmaker, he conceived of the entire production; costumes, staging – all of it, while also penning all the librettos for his music. Hence, Wagner developed the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, a complete work of art drawing many artistic mediums into one new and unified whole. It’s actually pretty hard to even conceive of the creation of the film art without this philosophy well established in practice.


The Elbe Philharmonic amphitheatre under construction and how it will eventually look / Photo: Sarah Zupko

The Elbe Philharmonic amphitheatre under construction and how it will eventually look / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Even those who’ve never been to a Ring opera probably know some of the music well. They’ve heard variations of it (so close the variations as to rightly question new authorship) in Star Wars and numerous other popular films, especially sci-fi. Siegfried is the third opera in the four-opera Ring cycle (and the first story composed by Wagner). It’s but one short step from the thrilling score of a Star Wars movie and its seductive, big screen, to the joy of live performance by an entire company of singers and musicians and the transporting experience of live theatre, that exquisite, highly skilled yet raw expression that is opera.

We argue that even heavy metal, with its fierce growls and often dark outlook on our short time on this Earth, is a mere kissing-cousin to Wagner’s Ring, wherein the land of the gods is slowly destroyed by greed and selfishness. The Ring may be derived from ancient stories, and may tell of gods from other worlds, but it is very close, very familiar. No matter the origin of the myth, we all know such stories, innately, at some core level, as they are the universal way of making sense of our world – all myths are simultaneously rich with truth and profoundly irrational, insane, destructive, heart-wrenchingly beautiful, hopeless and uplifting… and that, dear reader, is opera!


Brunnhilde and Siegfried / Photo: Staatsoper Hamburg

Brunnhilde and Siegfried / Photo: Staatsoper Hamburg

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