From the day in 1960 when composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann submitted the manuscript of his opera to Wolfgang Sawallisch, then general director of the Cologne Opera, Die Soldaten has been a cause c_lbre. Sawallisch declared the thorny, highly complex serial score unplayable, and it very quickly became to opera what Everest has been to mountain climbers‹something formidable to be conquered.
The work is based on J.M.R. Lenz's 18th-century play by the same name. It tells the tale of Marie, whose desire for life beyond her small town leads to an affair with a military officer, beginning a downward spiral to prostitution. Die Soldaten is considered a seminal musical expression of the horrors of war.
Nearly 48 years later, New Yorkers will have a chance to properly assess the merits of the work when the Lincoln Center Festival brings a visually and musically spectacular new production from the Ruhr Triennale in Germany to the Park Avenue Armory for five performances, beginning July 5.
The Ruhr Triennale sprang to life in 2002 as an annual way to call attention to the Ruhr region's newfound status as the third largest metropolis in Europe (after London and Paris), one that boasts five opera houses, seven orchestras, six theaters, as well as dance companies, museums, and numerous other thriving cultural institutions.
Its first director was G_rard Mortier, now general director designate of the New York City Opera. During his three-year tenure (triennale refers to the length of the director's term), he created a state-of-the-art performing space called the Jahrhunderthalle (Century Hall) out of a vast early-20th-century power station in Bochum.
In 2005, the noted stage director J‹rgen Flimm succeeded Mortier, and Die Soldaten was at the top of his list of priorities. Zimmermann had once told him that his opera would need a different kind of performance space, and in the Jahrhunderthalle Flimm knew he had found that kind of space.
To put it on stage, Flimm turned to David Pountney, a director he very much admired, who heads the Bregenz Festival on the shores of Lake Constance in Austria. With the space and director designated, Flimm looked at numerous options for the orchestra and conductor and soon realized that in the Bochum Philharmonic and its music director, Steven Sloane, he had precisely the collaborators he needed.
Pountney says he had some reservations about whether the piece itself ever really "works" in a traditional theater. But, referring to the Jahrhunderthalle, he says, "I found it instantly possible to understand how it could work in that particular hall. I think I suggested the way we were going to end up doing it within the first four minutes of standing in the room."
"The way" was to have the audience move through the production. Pountney sat the audience on two motorized platforms flanking a long but very narrow stage, which he now describes as an "epic table." As the opera unfolded, the audience traveled almost imperceptibly from scene to scene on railroad tracks, through the sounds of the massive 110-piece orchestra. Sloane communicated with the singers via video monitors and they with him by means of individual body mikes, so that no matter how far down the "epic table" they were, he and the orchestra would be able to hear them.
Sloane had to deal with the daunting issue of the score itself, which one writer has described as reproducing the deafening clamor of war. Granted, today's orchestral musicians are astonishingly more adept than their counterparts of 45 years ago at meeting the stringent technical demands of contemporary music. That said, according to Sloane, "the notation is, at first look, seemingly impossible not only to play but also to conduct." Sloane spent a year working with his orchestra to familiarize the players with the idiom, and to help them find the inherent lyricism he hears in the score. "Instead of being a bombastic piece...it basically is like enlarged chamber music" with a "very transparent and intimate nature" if everyone is striving for that goal.
Lincoln Center Festival Director Nigel Redden says that bringing over such a large production is a massive challenge even though only certain production elements are being shipped, such as the motors used to move the platforms. The rest, including the new seating platform, is being built or purchased here.
"One thing that festivals have to do," Redden explains, "is reinvent themselves. They have to reinvent spaces, and be fresh from the beginning every year, which is difficult." With Die Soldaten at the Armory, something fresh is being added to the Lincoln Center Festival profile. And the Drill Hall‹with its vast roof reminiscent of an old European railway terminus‹is really the only space in New York that could allow this production its acoustical and geographical space. (There will be a few alterations because the Drill Hall is wider and 25% shorter than the Jahrhunderthalle.)
Rebecca Robertson, president and CEO of the Park Avenue Armory (which as of 2006 owns and operates the building as a performing arts center), sees the arrival of Die Soldaten as a major way of establishing the Armory's new identity. She admits the Soldaten residency will be something of a learning curve for them: creative use of extant spaces is a must in order to accommodate the 39-member cast, the production staff, stage crews, orchestra, costumes, make-up and costume personnel and all the other etceteras involved in putting on any operatic event. "We want to learn how to really use this space and discover what we really need."
Almost everyone involved with this production believes Die Soldaten is one of the most important German operas of the 20th century. This "climax of willful complexity," as Pountney describes it, was a stunning success at its Ruhr premiere in 2006, and 2007 revival.
Flimm believes he has finally given Zimmermann's opera its full due. "I am very proud I fulfilled what he said to me‹'this piece needs a special place.' " Now audiences will have the chance to experience this remarkable production here in New York.
Thor Eckert, former music critic of The Christian Science Monitor, is the professional development coach at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.