Hamburg: Art, with Its Sleeves Rolled Up

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.

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

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

“No bastion of elitism, but a hall for everybody.”

“I believe the work is bigger than the performers,” says Hamburg State Opera’s artistic and musical director, Simone Young. It’s fitting, too, that Hamburg State Opera’s artistic and musical director, Simone Young, is largely a self-made woman. The Australian pianist came to music relatively late, at age 15 and as Hamburg is not a land of Kingdoms, Young is not a woman of a privileged, musical family, but was self-motivated to study piano. To ‘study’ is key to her nature. The ‘nerd’ in her (her term, as she describes her drive) loves the research, the meticulous look at the score, recovering elements that had been lost throughout interpretations.


Young added this opera to her repertoire more than ten years ago. She pored over the original Ring scores housed in the Bayreuth archives to bring as much depth to her production as possible. Bayreuth is quite simply ground zero for Wagnerphiles worldwide as it’s both the location of his historic home and archives, as well as the theatre (Bayreuther Festspielehaus) he had specially constructed for the performance of his works with the financial backing of supreme Wagner worshiper, Ludwig II of Bavaria. Young’s attention to minute detail in orchestration provides us with layers, rather than walls, of sound. Her goal is to present the entire Ring as close to what Wagner intended, musically, as possible.

The irony, then, is that Young’s approach to Siegfried is quite unlike the character of Siegfried himself, who is not one to pore over a history book, a score, or a blueprint for a magnificent building. “In Siegfried knowledge (knowing) is no longer valued, it is superseded by energy,” says Young at a breakfast press meeting the day after the Siegfried debut, “Siegfried is energy — that is valued over knowledge, these days.” Impatient and demanding, but not entirely a fool, Siegfried cleverly crafts his sword (Nothung) from, among other things, the whirling, sparking drum of a disemboweled washing machine. Swords in the era of washing machines may ring anachronistic, but remember; Young remains true to the score, and the sword is vital. In this production, that he forges the ancient instrument from scraps of the modern world do not deter, but delight, as literal sparks fly from Siegfried’s theatrical rage.

Simone Young

“Wagner’s Siegfried signifies the end of the gods, the end of wisdom, the turning away from the knowledge passed down through the ages,” says Young, “In the not too distance past, Siegfried might represent atomic energy — and its simultaneous promise of hope and destruction. So, too, we are at an age on the precipice of change, as the modern world values knowledge, ideas, concepts, over production.” Indeed, that sounds very much like … our modern world.

Young, in collaboration with Director Claus Guth (stage design and costumes by Christian Schmidt) captures perfectly the clumsy, unwitting hero who saves us from the gods that are driven by the desire for power. We have Siegfried to thank for our allotted time on this earthly paradise, such as it is. Siegfried’s world is far from the ideal of paradise. Each opera of the Ring in this production is staged as a room; each room is a place of contemporary knowledge. By the time Siegfried arrives, the setting is some time in the modern world; it could be anywhere on the outskirts of any powerful city, where the gloss is long gone and the inevitable, encroaching signs of destruction and decay are everywhere.

Siegfried (portrayed by Christian Frantz) is dressed in ghastly American-Apparel-style, minus a few washings (recall, we mentioned that the washing machine is broken, after all). Indeed, all the characters are dressed down but for the handsome, commanding Wanderer, Wotan in disguise (Falk Struckmann) in his long dark coat wielding his powerful staff. Siegfried, apparently unaware of the walking fashion disaster that he is, is brash, full of swagger, arrogant, even. And he’s frustrated about the state of things — the whole damned world is falling apart. Like Shakespeare’s ubiquitous gluttonous, crude, big-bellied Falstaff whom we all see in a neighbor, if not a relation, Siegfried, too, is an archetype that lives on through our stories, through the ages.

That he or his kind survive at all — that we as a species survive at all — is a miracle, given that this man who wields great power recklessly — at time rashly, at others, unwittingly — has no sense of place, no sense of history, no sense of his own mortality even (let alone the mortality of others) and, it seems, up until an alarmingly late stage in his development — he possess not even one wit of common sense about the broader world. But as for the world at hand, he’s a ‘can-do’ kind of man, forging a vital, shining sword from whatever resources are readily found; he is a roll-up your sleeves kind of man.

Siegfried Forging Nothung / Photo: Staatsoper Hamburg

Thus, Siegfried’s story is well suited for the city of Hamburg, a port city of the Hanseatic League, a city state in central Europe, built on muscle, might, with a brainy sensibility, a city that eyes the future and all the opportunities that can be drawn, persuaded, wrested from it. In all stories, be they of cities or the retelling of ancient myths, there are heroes, but it is the story itself that carries throughout time; the story merits new tellings, new interpretations. This opera had a cast of varying experience level from the seasoned and well-renowned Frantz in the lead and the celebrated Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde to the young Ha Young Lee from the Hamburg ensemble with role as the forest bird (Stimme eines Waldvogels) singing a tempting melody that Siegfried attempts to mimic and lure the dragon out of his den. “I believe the work is bigger than the performers,” says Young. No doubt Wagner, and the founders of Hamburg, would agree.

If you go…

If you go:

For those who appreciate solid workmanship in the arts over prima donnas, check out Götterdämmerung, the concluding opera in the Ring cycle (and filled with exquisite music that is best heard live), premiers at Staatsoper Hamburg 17 October 2010, and the entire Ring cycle will be presented over four nights in March 2011.

Indeed, opera runs nearly year-round in this city, as it does in most German cities, quite unlike the comparatively brief seasons of major US opera houses. Take a look at this packed schedule on the Staatsoper Hamburg website.

As part of Hamburg’s efforts to build itself into a European entertainment capital, the new Elbe Philharmonic Hall (opening 2012), will be showcasing world class concerts of various types — classical, world, jazz and pop — virtually every night. The concert program will be drawn up jointly with Hamburg’s long-established Laeiszhalle, under artistic director Christoph Lieben-Seutter.

We recommend you stay in the city center. We enjoyed clean, comfortable and affordable lodging at the Renaissance Hamburg Hotel, a handsomely renovated publishing house, designed by famed architect Fritz Höger. The Renaissance is within easy walking distance of the Rathaus, (Hamburg City Hall) a beautiful combination of Italian and northern German Renaissance architecture, as well as a bustling shopping district of high-end designer shops, the splendid shopping at the Karstadt department store, and numerous fine dining options.

Grosse Freiheit / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

Hamburg is a city state, but instead of being a towering metropolis like New York, it’s a comfortable, human-sized city of tight-knit neighborhoods and lots of trees — much of it easily accessible from the city center, where we stayed. Interested in live rock music, virtually 24 hours a day? You’ll enjoy the bars, pubs, nightclubs, casinos, restaurants and yes, if you’re into it, the strip clubs along the streets of the Reeperbahn.

Hamburger Kunsthalle

Hamburg is home to 45 museums, including a very well-regarded House of Photography (The Deichtorhallen) and the Gallery of Contemporary Art (Hamburger Kunsthalle).

The BallinStadt: Port of Dreams – Emigrant World Hamburg / Photo: Ballinstadt

The BallinStadt: Port of Dreams — Emigrant World Hamburg is off the beaten track, but accessible by bus and train, and well worth the effort. It’s housed in two remaining “Emigrants’ Halls” where immigrants, many of them economic refugees from Central Europe, were processed. Many will find their ancestors have passed through these halls.

A rockin’ breakfast at the Hamburg Fischmarkt / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Also enjoy the popular Hamburg Fishmarket (Fischmarkt Hamburg-Altona), Sundays along the harbor front. Locals are busy stocking up on fruits vegetables and flowers, their heavy baskets hooked on their arms, jostling others in the crowd. An array of wurst hang from strings affixed to movable wagons, smoked fish in abundance tantalizes from every vendor cart.