Opera World, 14 January 2015
Griet Leyers
Jonas Kaufmann’s Dream Factory
Why limit these fantastic songs to an occasional encore? That is the basic idea behind Jonas Kaufmann’s project ‘Berlin 1930.’ In a documentary, a recital series with orchestra, and a CD ‘Du bist die Welt für mich,’ star tenor Jonas Kaufmann pays tribute to the forgotten and unsurpassed operetta and film music of the Weimar Republic.

In January 1926 the celebrated belcanto tenor Richard Tauber becomes a superstar thanks to the song ‘Gern hab’ ich die Frauen geküsst.’ Supported by new media forms such as radio and talkies, the hit song from Franz Lehar’s operetta “Paganini” transforms the name Richard Tauber into a household word overnight – simultaneously creating renewed success for composer Franz Lehar.

Those were the golden days for tenors. Besides Lehar, composers such as Robert Stolz, Emmerich Kalman and Paul Abraham vied to outdo each other by writing ever more wonderful melodies for their favorite tenors. In spite of the eventually acidified friendship between composers Lehar and Kalman, described by daughter Yvonne Kalman in the documentary ‘Berlin 1930,’ the friendship, cooperation and professional flexibility within a group of very talented artists based in Berlin at that time is striking. For example Kalman’s favorite tenor Hubert Marischka staged operetta productions in which Richard Tauber starred as the lead tenor. His brother Ernst Marischka, known as director of the Sissi trilogy with Romy Schneider, wrote the lyrics for the worldwide hit ‘Du bist die Welt für mich’ in the operetta ‘Der Singenden Traum’ – which was composed and often conducted by Richard Tauber – while tenor Joseph Schmidt sang the leading role. Joseph Schmidt was yet another great star tenor of that period. At the diminutive height of 1m55 he was too short for the opera stage, but in the new media of radio and talkies, his gorgeous voice and underdog charm turned him into a star.

Im Traum

Despite Germany’s pioneering role in women’s rights – the Weimar Republic’s Constitution of 1919 granted suffrage to women – no one seemed to object to lyrics like “Take her, just kiss her, that’s what women are here for” (from “Gern hab’ ich die Frauen geküsst). This apparent contradiction probably fits in with the joyous atmosphere of the post-war and post-depression era. The enormous desire for carefree entertainment and unfettered dreaming achieves yet another dimension after the great depression of 1929. The flight from reality is illustrated by the song ‘Im Traum’ by Robert Stolz, rediscovered by Kaufmann in preparation for this project. In an interview presented in a 2009 documentary, the late Martha Eggerth, widow of star and sex symbol/tenor Jan Kiepura, reveals how she expressed her objections to Stolz when he made her husband sing “Blonde or brown, I love all women.” Her Jan was supposed to love her and her alone. However, her objections do not seem to have had any effect on Stolz and his collegues. Many of the song lyrics cannot be considered anything other than erotic. The suggestive text “In my dream, you’ve allowed me everything” is juxtaposed with a beautiful and romantic (almost naïve) melody embellished with hummed lines, which seem to come straight out of Walt Disney’s Snow White (1937). This thinly veiled eroticism runs like a red thread through quite a few of the hit songs of the 1920-1930’s.

Das Lied ist aus

In 1933, the curtain falls on the Weimar Republic and thus comes to an end the creative heyday of Berlin. Due to their Jewish origin, most of our main characters have become undesirable. In 1933 superstar Richard Tauber is assaulted by Brownshirts on the streets of Berlin and flees to Vienna. With the annexation of Austria in 1938, he is once again forced to leave and settles in London where he dies in 1948. Between 1933 and 1938 composer Robert Stolz smuggles numerous artists from Berlin to Vienna in the trunk of his car. In spite of his heroic efforts, the lives of many of his colleagues are irretrievably broken. Fritz Lohner-Beda, one of the star lyrics writers, dies in 1942 in Auschwitz. Joseph Schmidt does not manage to immigrate to the US and ends up in a refugee camp in Switzerland where he dies in 1942 from a severe throat infection. Paul Abraham manages to escape through Paris and Cuba, but fails to repeat his Berlin success in New York. In 1956 he returns to his homeland, sick and psychologically disturbed. He dies in Hamburg in 1960.

For others the story ended less dramatically. Lehar could remain in Austria after his Jewish wife – through direct intercession of Goebbels – was given the status of “honorary Aryan.” Korngold, author of ‘Die Tote Stadt,’ immigrated to the US where he became one of the greatest Hollywood composers. After the annexation of Austria, Robert Stolz left for the US as well. Despite the success of his concerts there, he returned to Austria in 1946. He managed to rebuild his European career after the war and died in West Berlin in 1975.

Respect, love and fun

“We refuse to put labels on good music” seems to be the underlying message of this striking project. Careful research, respect for the score and a fantastic team demonstrate that judging music according to its operetta, film, or opera “box” is not only completely beside the point, but also lacks any musical foundation.

From the opening song, conductor Jochen Rieder takes us all the way to Weimar through his ingenious tempo changes and phrasing. His choices and timing are refined and tasteful. His intentions are masterfully executed by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, a group of people who have this music running through their veins. Another highlight of this production is soprano Julia Kleiter. The gorgeous legati and extended musical phrases (of both singers) in the duet from ‘Die Tote Stadt’ are breathtakingly beautiful. In Diwanpüppchen, Kleiter is smart, funny and catchy.

Special and striking is the documentary/promotional film ‘Berlin 1930’ by Thomas Voigt and Wolfgang Wunderlich (Wunderlich Medien). It reflects the atmosphere of the 20’s and 30’s and portrays Kaufmann’s exciting research, taking us on a trip through German film archives and private collections and presenting interviews with remaining relatives of composers Kalman and Stolz.

The animal

It is (yet again) a challenge not to drop into the superlatives pitfall while describing Kaufmann’s contribution to this project. His technical mastery, the perfect dose of his voice in each song, his classy phrasing and his voice make him simply ‘hors category.’ What makes this project unique however is that Kaufmann takes us on his personal journey to discover the iceberg of wonderful music of which we previously knew only the tip, including the beautiful ‘Grüss mir mein Wien’ by Kalman for example, or the previously mentioned ‘Im Traum’ by Robert Stolz, of which the original score is missing. ‘Das Lied der Schrenk,’ a killer aria Eduard Kunecke wrote for the Danish tenor Helge Roswenger, is yet another great discovery. Besides Roswenger himself, only Rudolf Schock and Fritz Wunderlich accepted the challenge to record this beastly difficult aria.

The story goes that the famous baritone and pedagogue Josef Metternich with whom Kaufmann studied told him “My lad, I will awaken the beast in you and once it’s out, there’s no putting it back in the box.” I can only agree with Mr. Thomas Voigt when he states that the late Josef Metternich would have been impressed by the sound of “the beast” in his new CD.

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