Eros in Thanatos

Die Fledermaus by the Paris Opera Academy

Eros in Thanatos
In order to stage Die Fledermaus—a work where seeks to exorcise the shadows of yesteryear's world—Célie Pauthe has drawn inspiration from a tragic episode in the history of the 20th century: the performance of the operetta in 1944 at the Theresienstadt camp, where some of Europe’s finest musicians were imprisoned by the Nazis. What can the music of Johann Strauss tell us today after having traversed the unspeakable? A dual interview with the director and the conductor Fayçal Karoui.    

Célie, when the Academy asked you to stage Strauss’s operetta, how did you come to take an interest in the episode at the Theresienstadt camp?

Célie Pauthe: When I listened to Die Fledermaus, I was first fascinated by this music that seemed to dance above the void. In retrospect, one can imagine that the work, composed in 1874 in the fading years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is also a portent of the disaster to come: the end of the old world order, the First and Second World Wars and all the horrors of the 20th century… As I began to take an interest in Johann Strauss and his legacy during the 1930s and the Nazi era, I discovered that he spoke Yiddish, and that his family had Jewish roots—on his grandfather’s side—something that the Nazis did everything to conceal since we also know that Hitler was a great admirer of his waltzes. Strauss was somehow annexed by the Nazis. Gradually, one thing led to another and I came to discover the history of the Theresienstadt ghetto.    
Adriana Gonzalez, Jean-François Marras et Tiago Matos en répétition, février 2019
Adriana Gonzalez, Jean-François Marras et Tiago Matos en répétition, février 2019 © Elena Bauer / OnP

Can you tell us about that historic episode?

C. P.: Between 1941 and 1944, the town—which today is located in the Czech Republic—was the site of a concentration camp, a “propaganda camp” to which Jewish figures too well-known to be sent directly to the extermination camps were deported. Theresienstadt became a transit camp where some of the greatest musicians, painters, actors and writers of the era were sent. It was a centre of living art which the Nazis tried to exploit—they even went so far as to make a film of the prisoners in order to deceive the Red Cross. It was in these harsh, makeshift conditions that numerous shows were performed, including Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. This episode became the starting point of my research: I wondered how we could again listen to this music today by imagining it had traversed this camp. How, in hindsight, could history alter our perception of the work?

Fayçal, how did match your musical direction with Célie’s project?

Fayçal Karoui: The Opera Academy commissioned a reduced, musical version of the work for seven instruments: violin, viola, cello, double bass, flute, clarinet, and piano. In the scenography, the musicians and I are present on stage, among chairs some of which remain empty, since each evening at the camp in Theresienstadt, one never knew who would still be there. So, there’s this very powerful idea of “achieving something with limited resources”, with “those who are there” that enables us to listen with a new ear to this vibrant, lively work that happened to be performed during one of the darkest moments in history.

Célie, in your production of Bérénice staged last season, you strove to create a dialogue between Racine’s verses and Césarée, the short film directed by Marguerite Duras. This time, you confront Die Fledermaus with history. In order to stage a work, do you need to displace it or deterritorialize it?

C. P.: For me, the purpose of these encounters, these dialogues, these “frictional interplays”, between two works or between the work and a context is to better understand a text by changing the way we listen to it. The thought that Die Fledermaus had passed through Theresienstadt helped me to have a better grasp of the work’s vertiginous qualities by which Strauss takes us from the most exuberant vitality to the darkest melancholy. During rehearsals, I often have the physical sensation that the music is like a wave: we savour the froth and foam, but the trough is never far behind...    
Répétition de La Chauve-souris, février 2019
Répétition de La Chauve-souris, février 2019 © Elena Bauer / OnP

You have chosen to translate the dialogue into French…

C. P.: The spoken dialogue underwent some adaptations. I pruned it to give the text a more timeless, less-dated dimension, while at the same time infusing certain details pertaining to Theresienstadt—including footage that we filmed there—to facilitate an understanding of a line here or a retort there.

F. K.: French was important for repositioning the action, but also for conveying the multitude of accents and the cosmopolitanism of the performers. At the beginning of the performance, the singers and musicians introduce themselves by giving their first name and their place of birth. Since we are at the Academy, everyone comes from all over the world. In Theresienstadt too, there was this mix of nationalities. It’s a very moving moment.

C. P.: I needed to move beyond the performers, that’s to say, an absolute present, to allow the performance to be contaminated by discreet quotes from history. It’s also extraordinary to think that some of the performers like Liubov and Danylo were born a few years apart yet one was born in Russia and the other in the USSR. You sense the friction of the tectonic plates of history.    

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