Acting Up

René Pollesch and Dirk von Lowtzow collaborate on an opera

Much to his chagrin, René Pollesch is often accused of repeating himself. But writing a new work with Dirk von Lowtzow and calling it an opera sounds different enough. Opera is an art form associated with large and lavish productions. So the 50 musicians waiting in the orchestra pit for Von einem der auszog, weil er sich die Miete nicht mehr leisten konnte (The story of the youth who went forth because he could no longer afford the rent, 2015) at Volksbühne Berlin, appear as a potent display of Pollesch’s confidence. Even assuming that the well-known ‘post-dramatist’ (Pollesch) and the singer from the famous critical-theory-inspired rock band Tocotronic (von Lowtzow) are not en‑­tire­ly serious about the idea of ‘opera’, one can certainly expect something with singing and plenty of music.

The orchestral score follows convention with the opening overture evoking the menace of the theme music for Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). Then, from the depths of the stage, Lilith Stangenberg enters a shiny black acrylic circle in the centre of the stage and unceremoniously silences the orchestra with an ostentatious flail – clarifying the relationship between libretto and music. What follows is a drama for three actors and one prompter that barely differs from Pollesch’s usual work in terms of its academic atmosphere or textual overload, and in which ‘rent’ plays only a marginal role.

In this light, the first word of the opera weighs all the more heavily: ‘desire’. A great deal is said about perception, representation and the production of selfhood, but there’s little singing. There is talk about haircuts, some post-structuralist critique of narrative, the advertising revenues of search engines and Lacan’s three orders of the psyche – the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. There’s reference to the beginnings of the world, the expansion of the universe, and the primordial soup in which the very first single cell membrane develops a primitive level of selfhood. This development ends with humans, and different generations of them shout ‘there must be more than this’ or ‘I need something else’. In one of the few songs, we hear: ‘we are strangers to each other, but there’s nothing that separates us.’ And even the youngest generation, represented here by a children’s choir, affirms: we will never be content.

In terms of the ‘primordial soup’, the ink-like pool of water at the centre of the revolving stage is also a breeding ground. From it, alternative creation stories are born: mandrake and artificial insemination, Jonah and the whale, and thus notions of second births and the overcoming of biological boundaries as an escape route to utopia. By this point, an orca whale has descended from above. While this marine mammal is large enough to swallow the actors, its insides are used by them as a cosy refuge, video studio, changing room and spaceship. And perhaps ‘all the other impossible alliances that must be forged in the belly of the monster’ are already possible here – the symbolically-loaded whale, then, ultimately stands for capitalism.

But even in their post-dramatic and ‘post-human’ state, the characters remain above all plaintive souls who like to wallow in their own confusion and desperation. The libretto is laced with disquiet, incompatibility and discontent. As irony is the communicative base note, however, it is hard to entirely trust this embattled state. What’s more, Pollesch’s theatre often defines its aesthetic premises in negative terms: non-authenticity, non-autonomy, non-representation, non-drama. So it would be laughable to follow Alexander Kluge’s definition of opera as a ‘powerhouse of emotions’ in this case. Conversely, a libretto that is spoken (rather than sung) might just as well be called a play. Inhabiting a genre in order to then deliberately not deliver is not enough. Even if Pollesch doesn’t want to really write opera, his non-commital attitude makes it all the more desirable. And as soon as the voice of a trained singer is heard, the whole thing immediately becomes full-bodied, emphatic, almost ‘beautiful’.

Towards the end of the opera von Lowtzow’s score takes more of a lead, one that pulls together different kinds of pop-cultural micro-enunciations (Burt Bacharach, Marcos Valle, Francis Lai, etc.). A leaden yet gratingly shimmering piece called Moder (Mould) is followed by a melancholy monologue by Martin Wuttke: ‘there may be a slight psychotic irritation … The picture as a whole is totally fine, but you just don’t belong in it. Not you.’ On paper this reads like a typical Pollesch tirade, but when shouted into a powerfully rhythmic wall of sound it gains an urgency that becomes genuinely operatic. However long the shadow cast by critical theory and however carelessly terms like ‘the real’ are used, at brief moments, a certain earnestness overrides irony, opening up what can only be described as a sense of poetic bliss.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Issue 19

First published in Issue 19

May 2015

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