The Exhibition continues through Saturday 15th April 2017
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Designing ‘Good Theatre’
Caspar Neher (1897–1962)
An Introduction by Gavin Plumley
For Bertolt Brecht, theatre needed to appeal ‘less to the feelings than to the spectator’s reason’. In his productions during the 1920s and early 1930s, the principle was demonstrated by reduced but resolutely focussed visual means. ‘A number of stage designers feel they have achieved their aim if you can look at the stage and believe you are in a real place in real life’, he claimed. ‘What they ought to be doing instead is to make you believe you are in a good theatre.’
Brecht’s long-term collaborator and designer was Caspar Neher. Schoolmates and then equally committed socialists after World War I, Brecht and Neher’s careers emerged in parallel. Neher had originally imagined himself as a writer, but, having entered the Munich Academy in 1919, he became a stage designer, establishing himself in the theatre and, from 1927, in opera. He worked regularly with Brecht at the Kammerspiele in Munich, before the pair moved from Bavaria to Berlin in 1924. As well as designing for Max Reinhardt’s renowned Deutsches Theater, Neher worked at the Kroll Oper, a company established in 1927 and synonymous with a modernist, theatrically minded approach to both mainstream repertoire and new work, including operas by Janáček and Milhaud.
During this period, unreliable economic circumstances dictated aesthetic choices. For the film industry, high physical production costs precluded lavish naturalism, prompting visual innovation and expressionism. In the theatre, which had no recourse to cinema’s image-bending technologies, productions favoured a down-to-earth palette, natural textures and ‘found’, everyday objects for props. As one its progenitors, Neher thereby created the visual means for Brecht and others to maintain direct contact with their public.
Although productions during the Weimar period played to predominantly bourgeois audiences, the potent leftist leanings of these artistic teams, as well as the manifestly didactic language they preferred, caused tensions within an increasingly divided Germany. Neher, who designed the first productions of Kurt Weill and Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (1928), Happy End (1929) and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930), can certainly be counted among the artists who Chancellor Franz von Papen denounced as ‘cultural bolshevists’ in 1932. That was the year in which Weill’s Die Bürgschaft, featuring a libretto by Neher, ‘reaching out beyond the fate of private individuals towards universality’, had its premiere in Berlin. Another production of the opera followed in Wiesbaden, though five others were cancelled in response to Von Papen’s decree. The accession of Hitler the following January, the destruction of the Reichstag in February and the closure of the neighbouring Kroll Oper, which became the seat of the Reichstag under Nazi rule, effectively ended this era of experimentation.
An immediate, voluntary exile of talent – including Brecht to Denmark and Weill to the USA – was followed by the forced expatriation of many Jews and cultural figures after the institution of new racial laws and sweeping cultural prohibitions. Throughout the Nazi period, however, Neher continued to design for theatres in the Third Reich, when Brechtian style was supplanted by traditional, naturalistic settings. Neher also worked as librettist for Romanian-born composer Rudolf Wagner-Régeny. The authorities initially championed their work before it was condemned after the 1941 premiere in Vienna of the political satire Johanna Balk. Wagner-Régeny was conscripted, triggering a nervous breakdown, while Neher managed to work as a designer at the Hamburg State Opera, until he was forced to join the Air Ministry film service.
As well as working with Brecht again after the War, when the playwright returned to the German capital and founded the Berliner Ensemble, Neher was able to draw on international contacts, with many of his compatriots remaining abroad. They included Carl Ebert, who had begun life as an actor under Reinhardt and had directed the premiere of Die Bürgschaft in 1932. Later that year, he fled to Buenos Aires, but the landowner and opera lover John Christie was able to capitalise on this exodus of German talent when he founded the Glyndebourne Festival in 1934. Christie engaged Ebert as his head of production, Fritz Busch from the Semperoper in Dresden as musical director and Rudolf Bing, who had been Ebert’s assistant in Darmstadt and subsequently head of the Charlottenburg Opera in Berlin, as manager. After the War, Bing moved to the Edinburgh Festival and, from there, to the Metropolitan Opera, New York, providing Neher with further opportunities.
The designs featured in this collection, once owned by baritone Ernest Frank, relate to this post-War period and, specifically, to productions at the Edinburgh Festival (under Bing’s aegis), the Royal Opera House and, finally, the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Designing established repertoire works, including Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera and Macbeth, Neher was fulsome in his approach, no doubt encouraged by generous budgets, just as his aesthetic choices in the 1920s had been dictated by restricted funds.
It is therefore instructive to see these drawings in counterpoint to Neher’s pre-War work, whose sketches show kinship with ‘new objectivity’ artists such as Beckmann, Dix, Grosz and Schade. More characteristic of that time are Neher’s designs for the UK stage premiere of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, an opera premiered in Berlin in 1925 and which Neher first designed in Essen in 1929. It is a work of keen social conscience and the 1952 Covent Garden production no doubt rekindled something of the period in which Neher, working alongside Brecht, Weill and Reinhardt, had created a unique brand of ‘good theatre’.
© Gavin Plumley, 2016
Gavin Plumley is a writer and broadcaster specialising in the music and culture of Central Europe. He appears frequently on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4 and has written for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent on Sunday, as well as for opera and concert programmes around the world. www.gavinplumley.com
All works provenance
The Opera Singer Ernest Frank and by descent to his step-grandson.
Costume and set designs for the
New York Metropolitan Opera’s 1959 production.
Each sheet is loosely stuck to a support sheet of thin card which is inscribed to the verso by someone involved with the production, other than the artist.
Rudolf Bing was general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, New York from 1950 to 1972. He engaged Caspar Neher twice before his death in 1962, both in 1959: for Macbeth, directed by his German and Glyndebourne colleague Carl Ebert; and for Wozzeck, directed by Herbert Graf, who had fled Austria after the Anschluss. A review in Variety described Neher’s work for Macbeth, perhaps drawing on his 1938 designs for Glyndebourne, as mingling ‘dark tones, gaunt terrain and peevish pinks’, while another critic commented on the surprisingly pastel tones of the costuming for the warmongering Scots. The designs, on paper at least, use a much richer range of colour than for Un ballo in maschera at Glyndebourne. Yet more expressive, expressionistic even, are the set designs for the battle scenes at the end of the opera. The production remained in the Met’s repertoire until 1973, by which time Neil Peter Jampolis had supplemented Neher’s conception with a series of projections, further augmenting the leaping flames in Act IV Scene 1.
© Gavin Plumley, 2016
Costume and set designs for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, production 1952.
Caspar Neher first designed a production, the third ever, of Alban Berg’s opera in Essen in 1929. Neher was already well known for his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and Berg, surprisingly conservative in his theatrical taste, feared that the production would become ‘“the Two-Penny Opera” by C. Neher’. Despite the composer’s doubts, Neher went on to design several more productions of Berg’s masterpiece – as well as of Georg Büchner’s play on which it is based – including for the Salzburg Festival and the Metropolitan Opera, New York. The 1952 production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, directed by Sumner Austin, was the first staged version of Berg’s masterpiece in the UK. The designs are neutral, essentially monochrome, as befits a bleak, socially-acute drama set in a garrison town, though they are shot through with red, indicative both of soldierly rank and of blood (for the murder and suicide with which the drama ends). Neher never returned to Covent Garden, but his designs for Wozzeck continue to appear on stage until 1984.
© Gavin Plumley, 2016
Un Ballo in Maschera (Verdi)
Glyndebourne Festival Opera at the Edinburgh Festival, 1949
Caspar Neher first designed for Glyndebourne in 1938, for Carl Ebert’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth. Italian opera was Festival founder John Christie’s second passion after Wagner. While it would take until 2003 for the German composer’s operas to reach the Sussex opera house, Verdi has always been a staple of its repertoire. World War II curtailed performances at Christie’s home and the company took up residence at the Edinburgh Festival from 1948 until 1953 (though performances resumed at Glyndebourne in 1950). Neher’s designs for this 1949 Edinburgh production of Un ballo in maschera show a clear-sighted, traditional approach to Verdi and librettist Antonio Somma’s opera, originally about the assassination of the Swedish king, Gustavus III. In the 19th century, however, both the Neapolitan and Roman censors rejected the scenario, hence the existence of a second version, as here, concerning the (fictional) murder of Riccardo, Count of Warwick, who was Governor of Boston. The designs reflect this 17th-century, New England setting.