A number of years ago, it must have been in the early 1980s, a pleasure boat with a troupe of actors and a few spectators sailed across the Wannsee. “The Sinking of the Titanic” was played on the water, based on a long poem by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. The director of the simulated wreck was George Tabori. The Jewish writer and dramatist had survived the war and persecution in England, made a career in Hollywood and was later one of the stage revolutionaries in West Germany.
Things are completely different and yet not at the Jewish theater ship MS Goldberg. It experienced its artistic maiden voyage last Monday – firmly anchored in Spandau at the Dischinger Bridge. It stays there until August, with a wide program of concerts, discussions, readings, cinema and theater performances. “The Singer” is the name of the first piece on the MS Goldberg, based on the novel by Lukas Hartmann.
It tells of the last days of the famous tenor Joseph Schmidt, a Jewish artist from Bukovina, now Ukraine. Schmidt made it across the French border to Switzerland. He was already so ill and exhausted and treated so badly by Swiss officials and doctors that he died in Zurich in 1942, 38 years young.
Jewish theater ship – this is a courageous project. And not a small one. Behind this is the Discover Jewish Europe association and, above all, Peter Sauerbaum, who has held many leading positions in Berlin culture, from the Senate Cultural Administration to the Berliner Ensemble to the Jewish Museum. Not long ago, the MS Goldberg transported coal and gravel to Berlin. The purchase and conversion were essentially financed by the German Class Lottery Foundation, which donated one million euros. The barge looks brand new and where the cargo hold once was, there is now room for 190 spectators in a naturally elongated setting that has few windows and is sealed off from the water world.
At this place, one wants to turn against hate, hate speech, anti-Semitism, against everything that threatens peaceful coexistence, said the governing mayor Franziska Giffey, who came to the opening. The question is how new, young audiences will come on board. That’s what it has to be about if the initiative is to have a social impact. The ship is roadworthy and can also take off.
Even as a boy, Joseph Schmidt attracted attention in the synagogue with his extraordinary voice. He studied singing in Berlin, and it is particularly tragic that he became known through the Berlin radio and the radio operas, which were very fashionable at the time. The National Socialists were soon to develop the medium of radio into an effective propaganda tool.
Joseph Schmidt hardly had a chance on the opera stage. He was too small in stature, he would have made a laughing stock of himself. That was corrected in the film. In May 1933 his film A Song Goes Around the World had its premiere in Berlin, after which Schmidt emigrated to Vienna. He toured all over Europe while it was still possible, making guest appearances in Palestine and New York in 1937. Schmidt celebrated great success with his records, and in 1936 he made the film “Heut’ ist den schönste Tag in meine Leben” in Austria.
In the chamber play on the MS Goldberg, staged by Armin Petras, Joseph Schmidt’s hits are only gently hinted at on the cello, which is played by Ferdinand Lehmann, the singer’s actor. In the last phase of his life he was hoarse and suffered from laryngitis, so the bright, blaring tenor is not used here. Small game scenes show crossing the border at night, uncomfortable journeys in the car, sitting on suitcases, and on the train. Petras is known as a director with a love of detail.
The ensemble with Leila Abdullah, Alexander Simon and Christian Freund shows in many changing roles, from border policeman to escape helper, how the circle around the persecuted Jewish tenor is getting smaller and how the Nazi terror affects neutral Switzerland. At the end you only see the star in a short film excerpt: “A song went around the world”, his signature tune. If you listen to them today in their captivating, perhaps even feigned, optimism, the catastrophe sounds.
But you should have some knowledge about this man and his life. “The Singer” assumes a lot. An endgame is performed aboard the MS Goldberg, with a light hand.