- An Introduction to Götz Friedrich and Joachim Herz's "Musiktheater—Toward a Definition"
Written in the form of a manifesto, the following text describes the concept behind the work of Walter Felsenstein and his assistants at the Komische Oper Berlin. Felsenstein (born in 1901) founded the Komische Oper in East Berlin in 1947 and was its artistic director until his death in 1975.1 His approach to opera and its mise-en-scène has remained one of the most influential traditions of operatic staging to this day.2
Felsenstein's redefinition of the way in which opera should be understood and produced is commonly known as Realistisches Musiktheater (realistic music theater). However, Felsenstein and his assistants rarely used this term, preferring instead to speak simply of Musiktheater. Indeed, the term Realistisches Musiktheater seems to be an oxymoron, since no other theatrical genre could be said to be as tightly bound to artificiality as opera. Nonetheless, the idea behind Felsenstein's reconceptualization of opera was his desire to make opera in performance believable and relevant to the present times. Thus he strongly opposed the widespread attitude of excusing opera's artificiality with its historical, mythical, or fairy-tale character. From this perspective it becomes understandable why those writers discussing Felsenstein's work have felt compelled to capture his approach to music theater with a particularly resonant adjective.
The following text was written in 1960 by Götz Friedrich (1930-2000) and Joachim Herz (1924-2010), who had both been assistants to Felsenstein at the Komische Oper since 1953. After the first appearance of the text in the journal Theater der Zeit in 1960, it was again published by Reclam in Leipzig in 1970 as part of the volume Musiktheater: Beiträge zur Methodik und zu Inszenierungs-Konzeptionen, edited by Stephan Stompor.3 However, it was excised from the second edition of the volume in 1976, since Friedrich had left East Germany in 1972 and had therefore become persona non grata.
Following his emigration, Friedrich became one of the most successful and most discussed opera directors in West Germany. He instantly made a name for himself with his staging of Wagner's Tannhäuser at the Bayreuth Festival in 1972 [End Page 296] and became principal director at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London from 1977 to 1981 after staging Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen there in 1974-76. From 1981 until his death in 2000, Friedrich was general director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
After Felsenstein's death in 1975, Joachim Herz took over the artistic directorship of the Komische Oper from 1976 to 1981. Previously, he had been director of the Oper Leipzig (1959-76), where his 1973-76 staging of Wagner's Ring received much attention. Shortly before Patrice Chéreau's centennial Ring at Bayreuth (1976-80), Herz's production likewise read the Ring through the lens of George Bernard Shaw's The Perfect Wagnerite and a critique of nineteenth-century capitalism. From 1981 to 1991 Herz was artistic director of the Semperoper Dresden, where he inaugurated the renovated theater with his staging of Weber's Der Freischütz in 1985.
Walter Felsenstein himself was a very productive writer; many of his texts were also translated into English.4 However, the following manifesto written by Friedrich and Herz, "Musiktheater—Versuch einer Definition" has never been translated. It appears for the first time in English in this issue.
In order to understand the particular focus of Friedrich's and Herz's definition of Musiktheater, it is worth relating it to the general usage of the term in German. It is possible to identify at least five different nuances or subcategories.5 In the most general sense, Musiktheater is an umbrella term for all those theatrical genres in which music plays a significant role, either because the spoken word is replaced by song (as in serious opera) or because sung passages dominate (as in comic opera, operetta, or the musical). In these cases the use of music is a quantitative as well as a qualitative category, as the music serves not only in a diegetic way (for example, in marches...