The Wall stands again: in the set design for Bernhard Gander's opera Songs of Exile and No Return, it fences off the horizon across the full width of the stage in the Tischlerei of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, which is well attended for the open rehearsal in the lead-up to the world premiere. The Munich Biennale premiered the work on May 7, as well as on the following days. It can be seen in Berlin from May 21.
Parts of Serhij Zhadan's powerful text, translated into German by Claudia Dathe, are projected onto this wall from time to time. It symbolizes how sharply new dividing lines run in our world. Fleeing people - with their attributes like life vests, plastic carrier bags, tattered clothes - are condemned to a waiting state in front of the wall. The librettist, one of Ukraine's defining literary figures and the lead singer of a popular punk rock band, wrote his Songs of Exile and No Return in 2018 with the war in eastern Ukraine in mind. The fact that Putin would shortly thereafter engulf the entire country in war was only a vague fear during the production's planning period, something that hardly anyone in the West expected.
The text refrains from concrete references to real places and situations, but it also becomes unspokenly clear which "East" one is thinking of in this piece. "The libretto, however, goes beyond questions of current conflict; it is about sovereignty, greed for profit, self-determination, existential threat," says Andrew Robert Munn, who embodies the "man in a military uniform" in the proction stage directed by Alize Zandwijk. In the deportation cell, he sits with the "man in a suit." "The militiaman and the war profiteer, that is, idealist and cynic, negotiate the conflict here and ponder what comes after prison," the singer explains.
From the very first contact with Bernhard Gander's music, it became clear to Andrew Robert Munn that the role would also make special demands in terms of vocal technique. "My part is almost for basso profondo, constantly singing these low notes," he says. "When I auditioned for the role, they said, 'That was probably too beautiful, the composer wants it more brutal.'" However, the production's soundscape abstains from references to heavy metal vocals, which the bass can imitate impressively. For Bernhard Gander, it was rather the band Depeche Mode, about whom Serhij Zhadan has also written in one of his novels, that was an important inspiration. Andrew Robert Munn reports about the first musical rehearsal with the members of Ensemble Modern: "I first thought: Ah, a rock opera. I feel a strange contradiction in this: singing the music is so much fun. But finding your inner rock singer and making a show out of it seems inappropriate, of course, given the subject matter."
This contradiction fits a basic question of the production, which the singer describes thus: "It's absolutely necessary AND absolutely futile to make such art." Probably everyone in the audience feels the dichotomy, and in the production it is addressed right at the beginning. "Should we talk about politics in theaters?" This is asked by a chorus of saturated affluent citizens at bar tables, who seem to have been transplanted from the opera foyer to the stage. A few square meters of intermission chatter as a mirror of the audience, which after the harrowing piece about people without a homeland might likewise take a neat drink and then sleep peacefully in the safety of their own four walls.
Every political work has to deal with this dilemma, but in the case of Bernhard Gander's opera the discomfort is especially great, the question of what art can and should do is particularly pressing. Serhij Zhadan tries - again with the voices of the group at the bar table - to give an answer: "Culture is the ability to talk about life in the presence of the dead. Culture is the attempt to communicate with those who light a fire under you. Culture is our ability to balance between sad experience and uneasy foreboding."
Nowadays, culture is also the fact that on social media you can see, virtually live, how the man from whose pen these words came suffers through the daily life of war in Kharkiv, and how current events keep creating new tragic blueprints for the perception of this work. The responsibility that consequently comes with his role is illustrated by Andrew Robert Munn's last sentence in the work: I am ready. An article by Serhij Zhadan in DIE ZEIT in April was also headlined 'We are ready'. "That really hit me," says the singer. "Because there are thousands of people now every day who are making this statement with their bodies, in their reality."
Nina Rohlfs, May 2022; translation: Elizabeth Pilon