The Whore of Babylon, in a grotesque fat suit, belts out a hymn to hedonism midway through the Deutsche Opers new production of Antikrist here.
Ersan Mondtags riotously colorful, boldly stylized staging of what this works Danish composer, Rued Langgaard, called a church opera is a near-breathless swirl. Nodding to various early-20th-century art movements, including symbolism, expressionism and the Bauhaus, it is only the third full staging of the work, which was written and revised between 1921 and 1930, but which remained unperformed at the time of Langgaards death, in 1952.
Inspired by the Book of Revelation, Antikrist premieres Sunday and runs through Feb. 11. It is the latest in a series of operatic rediscoveries at the Deutsche Oper, which, in recent decades, has made a point of highlighting works from outside the canon. In recent seasons, it has lavished attention on Meyerbeers Le Prophète as part of a series devoted to that once-renowned 19th-century composer, as well as two early-20th-century titles, Korngolds Das Wunder der Heliane and Zemlinskys Der Zwerg.
Along with the Deutsche Opers commitment to commissioning new operas, these rediscoveries are a way of refreshing and enlarging operas notoriously narrow repertoire. An essentially unknown work like Antikrist presents a host of logistical challenges, from training singers to attracting audiences, but it can provide its director with rare creative license. The absence of entrenched performing traditions can be artistically liberating.
Its totally crazy, Mondtag, who also designed the sets and helped design the costumes, said of the piece. Its something between Schoenberg and Wagner, and like a sacred opera without linear narration. So you have the freedom to do whatever you want.
Mondtag, one of Germanys leading young avant-garde directors, was putting the finishing touches on Antikrist when the pandemic locked the country down for the first time, in March 2020. Since then, hes staged two other rarely performed 20th-century works, Schrekers Der Schmied von Gent and Weills Silbersee, both for Vlaamse Opera in Belgium. A relative newcomer to opera, Mondtag said it was hardly surprising that hes been getting assignments like these, rather than war horses like Tosca.
Its considered more experimental to do unknown things, Mondtag said. In his short time working in opera, he added, he has acquired something of a reputation as an expert of unstageable or unknown operas. I didnt choose that; it just happened that way.
When the Deutsche Oper returned to live performance in the summer of 2020, it concentrated on a new production of Wagners four-opera Ring. All four titles premiered at the house during the pandemic, but after the Ring played its last performances earlier this month, the company turned its attention to the delayed Antikrist premiere.
Its such impressive music that I think its necessary to do it, said Dietmar Schwarz, the Deutsche Opers general director. He added that while he would love it if Mondtags production inspired new interest in Antikrist, he was mostly focused on finding a curious and open audience in Berlin.
Were not necessarily doing it for the survival of this old opera, he said.
Isolated productions of rediscoveries rarely catch fire. One exception was David Pountneys acclaimed staging of Bernd Alois Zimmermanns punishing 1965 work Die Soldaten, which was first seen in 2006 at the Ruhrtriennale festival in Germany and traveled to the Park Avenue Armory in New York two years later. A spate of productions followed in Berlin; Munich; Salzburg, Austria; and elsewhere.
Yet even if rediscoveries are confined to a single production, German opera administrators have increasingly made them a priority. This contrasts with the United States: These days, it is more common for the Metropolitan Opera or the Lyric Opera of Chicago to present an attention-generating world premiere than to dust off a forgotten work. (Leon Botsteins full-production revivals at Bard College in New York are a notable exception.)
There is a treasure trove of stuff out there, said Barrie Kosky, who leads the Komische Oper in Berlin. Since arriving at that company in 2012, he has scored some of his greatest hits with productions of long overlooked works, including operettas by German-speaking Jewish composers like Paul Abraham and Oscar Straus.
Lets face it, we cant survive on just a diet of the 20 most famous titles, Kosky said.
Of course, its always a risk because sometimes you bring back a piece and it doesnt work, he said. Or, he added: You say: Look, were bringing this back. Its not a perfect piece, but this score is still worth hearing. I think thats also very legitimate and valid; I dont think everything has to be a masterpiece.
Kosky pointed to his own eclectic programming at the Komische Oper where, before the pandemic, the house was selling 90% of its seats as evidence that theaters can be filled with works by composers other than Mozart and Puccini.
All of thats been blown out of the water when I see that we can sell out The Bassarids completely, he said, referring to Hans Werner Henzes 1965 opera, which Kosky staged in 2019. Or we can have incredible advance sales for an operetta where people dont even know the title or the music.
When Matthias Schulz, the general director of the Staatsoper in Berlin, programmed a Baroque festival in his first season leading the company, he didnt go for the usual suspects.
I wanted to do everything except Handel, he said.
The centerpiece of the festivals first edition, in 2018, was Rameaus Hippolyte et Aricie. Since then, two rarities have followed: Scarlattis Il Primo Omicidio and, this past fall, Campras Idoménée, far more obscure than Mozarts later Idomeneo.
Hidden in the corners of opera history, Schulz said, there are real masterworks and we have a responsibility to find them. We need to convince the audience that what we do is interesting, and to challenge them.
That process looks different in Berlin, with a rich opera landscape thanks to three full-time companies, than it does in smaller cities. Laura Berman, the artistic director of the Staatsoper in Hanover, in northern Germany, said that drawing an audience with obscure titles can be a challenge. But, she added, the right work and the right production can also put a smaller house on the map.
In her first season in Hanover, Berman scored a hit with Halévys religious potboiler La Juive which, like Meyerbeers grand operas, faded from the repertory by the early 20th century. Lydia Steiers production conjured a historical survey of antisemitism, starting in post-World War II America and working back to 15th-century Konstanz, Germany, the setting specified by the libretto. The 2019 staging was acclaimed, and helped the company earn the title of Opera House of the Year from Oper Magazine.
Berman said she wasnt surprised that a production about the need for tolerance had resonated in Hanover, a religiously and ethnically mixed city she that called extremely diverse.
People have always talked in the theater about hooks: how to get the audience hooked into going to see something, she added. I truly feel today that the topic is major, especially for younger audiences, more than the title.
She added that works like La Juive were excellent for convincing people that an opera house is a forum for social and political discussion which, in the end, it always has been, for at least several hundred years.
The Staatsopers next big premiere in Hanover will be Marschners Der Vampyr in late March directed by Mondtag. His visual world is really special, Berman said. But for me, the main factor is being able to think through works and being able to bust them open.
That is less terrifying, she added, if you do a work where there are no preconceived notions.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times