The Israeli Opera opens its 28th season with one of the most important operatic pieces of the 20th century – Wozzeck by Alban Berg, staged by renowned German opera/theater director Manfred Beilharz. The production was presented in Israel in 2005 and is now regarded as one of the Israeli Opera’s most powerful operas ever staged, not only because of the powerful music and dramatic story but also thanks to its theatrical presentation – the creative cooperation between Beilharz and stage/costume designer Berndt Holzapfel.
Berg based his opera on the play Woyzzeck, written by Georg Buchner in 1836. This is a horrendous story of an abused little man who tries to survive in a ruthless world. The protagonist is a soldier, abused by his superiors, who murders the only person he trusted – his lover Marie – when he discovers that she had cheated on him. Wozzeck accidentally drowns in a swamp when he tries to throw away the knife with which he killed Marie, but it looks very much like suicide.
Sitting in the Israeli Opera conference room before a long rehearsal day, German-born Beilharz talks about Buchner’s play and Berg’s opera. Beilharz, who serves as the intendant (supervisor) of the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden and was an artistic director of opera houses and theater companies throughout Germany, founded several contemporary theater festival in his country and has numerous opera productions to his credit.
“Theater’s major function is to enrich people with an emotional experience, to tell them what they did not know about life,” says Beilharz. “For me, this is the only reason I make theater. I was 16 when I first read Buchner’s play, and I immediately knew that I wanted to stage it. This was the first German drama in which the central character was a man of the lowest class; also, the way Buchner (who died at 24) treated the conflict between the needs of the good and obedient Wozzeck and what his superiors demanded of him. Wozzeck is not a 100% normal person – he has apocalyptic visions, and we never know if this is his madness or an ability to see what ordinary people don’t. He is very sensitive, which makes his language poetic.”
But how can an audience with middle-class values identify with this miserable, mentally challenged and mercilessly abused soldier? “Wozzeck is not a realistic piece,” says the director. “It is a model of a society taken to the extreme and is full of meaningful symbols about our existence, so that you can understand much more not only about yourself but also about others. Buchner had a terrific sense of what happens in the souls of his characters. The hero is not on the sunny side of life. For me, Wozzeck is a cry for solidarity, for compassion.”
Switching to Berg’s music, the director says that the composer (for whom this was his first opera) understood Buchner’s play perfectly. “Just as Buchner himself, Berg had a great feeling and understanding of what is behind the characters, and he makes it clear with his music.”
Beilharz, for whom this is his fourth production of Berg’s masterpiece, confides that he never feels he has rattained a complete understanding of the opera.
“It is never boring for me. Both Buchner and Berg had a great understanding of human nature. But since humans are incomprehensible, it is never boring. This is a journey through the human soul, which never ends.”
The production is minimalist and stunningly beautiful.
“Since the story and the characters are so strong, I thought we should not distract the audience from the essence of the piece, so we shouldn’t build big sets. The only things that are really needed to tell the story are on the stage,” says Beilharz.
He explains that every director who stages Wozzeck has to deal with the fact that scenes change very quickly: “Sometimes you have only 25 seconds to switch to a different place. It is rather like a film script. So we invented an electronically guided moving wall (which, despite its simplicity, requires complicated machinery) and just give the audience a sign that says that we have jumped to this or that location. And the public simply falls into a new situation,” he says.
The stage design is influenced by German expressionism, with light – also far from realistic – playing a very important role. “This helps us to understand what Wozzeck feels and suffers. So this all transpires on the border line of realism and fantasy,” says Beilharz.
The cast is a mixture of international and Israeli singers. David Stern conducts, young Israeli maestro Daniel Cohen replaces him in the pit for several performances.
There will be nine perfomances of Wozzeck at the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv between November 26 and December 7.
For tickets and further information: http://www.israel-opera.co.il. For reservations (03) 692-7777.