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Read the Financial Times' review of Andrea Breth's "dark intense production that is made so well it feels like a 100-minute nightmare." And watch a video trailer at the Staatsoper website.


Putting the black back into Wozzeck

Andrea Breth has just directed Alban Berg's "Wozzeck" at the Staatsoper in Berlin. She talks to Niklaus Hablützel about Büchner's word compositions, why only singing beautifully can ruin everything, and the power of curtains.

Taz: Frau Breth, Roman Trekel who played Wozzek in the premiere, has fallen ill.

Andrea Breth: Which means we've been working like dogs since Tuesday evening.

all photos Wozzeck Staatsoper Berlin
© Bernd Uhlig

What is so difficult about this role?

It is mentally but above all psychologically extremely demanding if you take it seriously. Then it affects you on a very deep emotional level and if you allow that to happen then it is not pleasant. Of course you could also choose to keep a distance and just concentrate on singing beautifully, but this is neither what Büchner nor Berg is about.

Berg is not interested in only having beautiful singing. It's not really all that different from acting – and in this sense a theatre director is perhaps very useful for the singers. But then I wouldn't call Wozzeck an "opera" at all. It is musical theatre.

That's quite a charged word, ideologically speaking. In what sense is "Wozzeck" not an opera?

I think of opera in very different terms – and it's not my thing at all! When it comes to opera I'm only interested in working with stand-ins, because the superstars just show up for four days and think the job's done. They're probably not even interested in what the opera's actually about, and on top of that there are always those money-grabbing agencies behind them who want their singers to be out doing fashion shows on the side while everyone else is breaking their backs.

That's the opera business. Let's talk more specifically about Alban Berg's score. Why is this not an opera?

It only has two arias. Both are for Marie. No one else has an aria. If even the first apprentice also sings beautifully then the whole thing's destroyed. Why should he sing beautifully? This character is completely drunk, the singer has to let this into his voice – and it is composed that way.

You've never directed Büchner's play.

It never interested me because I knew the opera. Berg has such a profound understanding of Büchner and his version of the text is the best there is. It's so fantastic and I said to myself, if I do ever do "Wozzeck" at all, it has to be this opera. Daniel Barenboim was generous enough to make my wish come true.

So you really can't complain.

Not for a second. It's wonderful with these singers and Daniel Barenboim.

There are breaks during the performance where the stage is black and only the orchestra's playing.

This is part of Berg's score.

But no one has staged it this way before.

Which I think is huge mistake. I've also seen it performed with no curtains between scenes, as Berg prescribed, and I found that it becomes long and loses aggression as a result because they always put in some wordless activity instead. But what on earth should that be?

I tried all kinds of things, decided they were stupid and then I decided to go back to take a closer look at the score: he actually prescribes the speed of the curtain! And if you do it as it was written, the effect is completely overwhelming. What on earth would you do at the end of 3 minutes 24 seconds of wonderful music? You wouldn't even notice the music if I put in some schmaltzy scene. Not that I'm incapable of such a thing but even in Büchner's original it's paced like a film. A station drama, very much like a woodcut.

It's never been done like this before, it was Büchner's invention, and Berg was a film freak, who was constantly going to the cinema and who took over the dramatic composition, adding all sorts of ideas himself. The length of the curtain is prescribed down to the last second. I was so delighted, I thought: let's just do exactly what it says!

"Man is an abyss", sings Wozzeck, "it makes you dizzy to look into him." Your production didn't make me feel dizzy...

... then I must have done something wrong!

No, not at all. The way you clearly separate the individual scenes creates a sense of distance and forces one to scrutinise everything very precisely. The observations are shocking but it's not about moral judgement, and even the Captain and the Doctor are not all evil.

But what does the Doctor do to Wozzeck? Berg knew from the war what it means to eat nothing but beans for weeks on end. It's appalling, the man is Mengele, the concentration camp doctor!

What does Wozzeck do to Marie?

Yes, what does he do to her, just before the murder? It's the longest scene. It needs so much time, and I see it is an attempt at a love scene. If only she would speak! He's constantly making her offers. Of course you can play it like a Hitchcock: "So, how many years have we known one other?"

But I would find that boring. He gives her chance after chance, and I don't believe that he picks her up with the intention of killing her. Then he wouldn't have to talk to her so much. He would take her into a corner. It works brilliantly on stage: she's dead, he says something to her or not and exits. But why does Büchner – and Berg too – take such a crazy amount of time with it? It's very, very tender. "What's up, Franz?" "Nothing" – then a long pause – and only then comes the end.

And this is exactly what we see and hear so clearly in your staging. And you've left out the usual indictment of society. The Captain and the Doctor are pathetic, ludicrous wretches who can't even utter a proper sentence.

I didn't want to present caricatures, but to this day I have no idea why Büchner gives so much space to these two. The Captain is a hypochondriac but he's also genuinely sick and the doctor has his fixed ideas. These are traumatic images. Gießen, this is small-minded Germany with all its limitations. Everything goes round in circles. Why does the Captain say "slowly" the whole time? Because he has no one to talk to except Wozzeck. All these cruelties are so petty. and I think it's precisely the job of the theatre to show such things.

The production is so logically compelling, as if you had no other choice but to bring this piece to the stage. Why is that?

It wasn't only because of Daniel Barenboim's wonderful question as to what I wanted to do with him after "Eugen Onegin". I replied "Wozzeck", although he had already done it with Patrice Chereau. He still agreed. That was four years ago but I've wanted to do it for even longer than that. It's the story of a horrific world, which for me translates into an attitude towards life.

The cosmos of a great work of art like this never loses its validity. There's no point asking why someone is doing "Don Giovanni". You can spend a lifetime trying and you will never get there. The other thing is a formal, aesthetic question. How can you capture something which is composed linguistically and musically? I told the singers today that the notes are there in the text, too. How often does the word "glänzend" (gleaming/shiny) come up? Or "stille" (silence): first it's "strangely still" then "completely still". These are Buchner's word compositions.

I'm so incredibly fascinated by the language as it is, but when on top of that a composer like Alban Berg has such a deep sense of this language and composes with it, I get the feeling that I can go so much further than just spoken word theatre. We could fiddle with these miniatures for weeks on end. But we don't have the time.

No you don't. "Lulu" is already on the programme. Was that also a request of yours?

It all has to do with my friendship with Daniel Barenboim. He was kind enough to give me "Wozzeck", and now he wants wants to do "Lulu" with me himself. It will be very difficult, but I'm sure I'll come up with something.


Andrea Breth was born in 1952 and today works mostly in the Vienna Burgtheater, having made her name in a number of prestigious theatres. Between 1992 and 1997 she ran the Berlin Schaubühne. Since 2000 she has also been directing opera.

Her production of "Wozzeck" is considered one of the highlights of the Berlin Staatsoper. The press was jubilant, but because it was performed during the so-called Festtage, only a few performances took place, and at hugely inflated prices. Annoyed by this policy, Andrea Breth saw to it that unemployed viewers were allowed to attend the dress rehearsal free of charge. On October 22/23 Andrea Breth's "Wozzeck" returned to Berlin for 3 more performances – at the normal ticket price of 37-84 euro.

The original interview was published in the Tageszeitung on 26 October 2011

Niklaus Hablützel is a freelance cultural journalist and author.

Translation: lp - let's talk european