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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Invaders win Berlin's culture war


By Norman Lebrecht / November 1, 2000

How the city's three opera houses were spared

THE crimson rhetoric coming out of Berlin this week has rather obscured the nature of the conflict, a bare-knuckle fight between government and the performing arts. The bout began when the ruling senate of Berlin decided that the capital could not afford three opera houses. Its cultural senator, Christoph Stolzl, proposed that the two largest should merge.

Daniel Barenboim, music director of the Staatsoper on the former east side, said he would rather quit. Christian Thielemann, music director of the west-side Deutsche Oper, had already resigned over plans to put both companies under the jittery rule of Udo Zimmermann, an over-ambitious composer who previously ran the Leipzig State Opera.

As tempers frayed, racial terminology clouded the issue. The city's Christian Democrat leader made reference to "the Jew Barenboim" and to Thielemann as "the young Karajan" - perhaps forgetting that the young Karajan was an avid Nazi. He quickly apologised, saying that he had been trying to talk up Berlin's multi-culturalism.

Thielemann himself was rumoured to have grumbled about "all this Jewing around", a comment he has consistently denied making. The CDU's national parliamentary leader broadened the front by demanding that Germany's Leitkultur - its dominant culture - should be protected from erosion by rising tides of immigration. Quick to the clich*, the world press depicted the row as a rising of spectres from the sewers of the past, thus missing the nub of this fascinating Kulturkampf.

What was really going on in Berlin was a struggle for the control of public theatres, a battle whose outcome would have determined the cultural future of the cities of Europe for the next half-century. No sooner had Stolzl announced his "masterplan" for Berlin than resistance rallied on a continental scale.

Leading the campaign were a Frenchman, an Englishman and an Austrian - Hugues Gall of the Paris Opera, Sir Peter Jonas of Bavarian State Opera and Alexander Pereira of Zurich Opera. After a protest meeting in Zurich, Jonas declared that culture "does not belong to politicians" but to the German nation as a whole.

Last Friday, the protesters set up shop in Berlin, staging an open confrontation in a radio studio with Stolzl and his sidekick, Zimmermann, in front of an 800-strong audience. Some of those present described it as the hottest ticket of the season.

In their professional judgment, said the opera chiefs, what Berlin needed was not closures but stability. Its three opera houses were well run and, contrary to Barenboim's protestations, did not need extra subsidy.

Zimmermann leaped to his feet, demanding to know why Pereira had flown in from "the Gold Coast of Zurich" and Jonas from the "riches of Munich" to preach to hard-pressed Berliners. Jonas taunted him with Leipzig's financial failures.

Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the respected former foreign minister, spoke up in favour of the status quo. Stolzl, wilting, asked the invading intendants if they could spare him a weekend this month to brainstorm a new plan that would save money but spare the three opera houses. With barely a whimper, the battle was won.

But this was no time to quaff champagne. Berlin had been a vital stronghold in the war between low-culture politicians and high-brow institutions. To have lost Berlin would have meant that no city in Europe could consider itself entitled to more than one opera house. In Britain, the Labour Government tried three years ago to shoehorn Covent Garden and ENO on to one stage. In Australia, the opera companies of Sydney and Melbourne were forcibly merged. Reducing the "dominant" culture has become a worthy political objective.

The old argument that culture represents the nation no longer washes with millennial politicians who were raised on rock music and shlock movies. All they want to hear is that the arts are efficiently run, good for the economy and subservient to current dogmas of inclusivism and education.

Jonas, Gall and Pereira run famously tight ships. By contrast, Covent Garden, on a 65 million budget, spends half as much again as the highest-spending German opera house (Munich, 45 million) - and has little to show for it. Paralysed by indecision and double-tasking (among other long-embedded faults), it produces barely half as many shows and takes few artistic risks. When the next phase of culture war breaks out in Britain, the ROH will look forlorn and Europe's premier bosses will not come rushing to its defence.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999