“It’s a bit like being on the run here,” sounds the audience gathered in front of the closed doors of the Deutsche Oper’s carpentry workshop. The bare, narrow corridor that fills with people waiting is indeed reminiscent of a ship’s passage. The “escape luggage” recommended for younger people to use as a seat – large suitcase-like plastic sacks – fits in with this.
It’s still convenient. When the audience sits tightly packed inside, staring at an impassable wall that stretches the length of the broadside, the heavy doors have slammed shut and the semidarkness is filled with a subliminal drone and hum, then things get serious.
Now there is no escape. Not in front of Bernhard Gander’s demanding, penetrating music, threatening in deep sequences, and certainly not in front of Serhij Zhadan’s haunting words that shake all calm and security.
Commissioned by the Munich Music Biennale, the “Songs of Expulsion and Never Returning” had their world premiere on May 7 and are now premiered in cooperation with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin.
What was about two years in advance in its creation initially referred to wars, flight and uprooting all over the world – and the indifference, rejection or helplessness of the sated West. Unexpectedly, they are getting under our skin with the war that is “suddenly” taking place in the middle of Europe.
In his first music theater libretto, Serhiy Zhadan, a writer, punk musician and political activist who was born in the Luhansk region and lives in Kharkiv, shows stations of flight, waiting, being rejected, despair and hope.
In front of the wall (stage: Theun Mosk) is the passport control area of an Eastern European border crossing. A line of people from the east faces a group of observers on the west side. Foreigners are still welcomed “as if we didn’t have to look away tomorrow and regret our openness”.
Director Alize Zandwijk puts this into concrete terms by allowing a champagne reception (on the Titanic?) to take place on the left, with a pile of life jackets, a garbage can and a glaringly flickering street lamp threateningly close by.
The Ensemble Modern, conducted by Elda Laro, positions itself in front of a wrecked car on the right, with violin, double bass, two pianos, drums and bass clarinet. There, refugees peel themselves out of shapeless plastic cocoons (costumes: Anne Sophie Domenz): “All of Eastern Europe is a purgatory”.
With the champagne drinkers, they form a seven-part choir in which the sides are swapped and dissolved: “The people who live in safety today may end up on the streets tomorrow,” says the director.
Uncertainty everywhere: a man in a business suit (Carl Rumstadt) and a man in military fatigues (Andrew Robert Munn) meet in a prison cell. The speculator exploited his country, the soldier killed people for the supposedly good cause.
Their positions are also converging: they face the same fate of deportation and conviction. Between them, a woman (Antonia Ahyoung Kim), who has only her child left, who is not allowed to beg from the satiated until she cries out: “Put me out of this country”.
No one is at home here anymore, going to nowhere. In view of this suffering, actress Nadine Geyersbach denounces the mendacity of the West – perhaps the only passage that seems somewhat striking.
Gander counteracts all moralizing emotion by tearing apart the powerfully eloquent text, demanding an accent-shifting constant staccato from the voices, singing at full speed, screaming the same. In between there is rarely anything lyrical, even harmonious, scraps of melody.
In the electronically distorted instrumental sounds hammering in a techno and heavy metal manner, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata suddenly sounds, just as nostalgically as hopefully touching.