Paris, 1942

An imaginary performance of Capriccio

By Aurélien Poidevin 05 February 2016

© LAPI/Roger-Viollet

Paris, 1942
For his staging of Capriccio, Robert Carsen chose to transpose the work to the context of its first performance, during the Second World War, in order to explore the idea that art can provide a refuge when history unleashes terror. As an echo of this rereading of the work, we asked Aurélien Poidevin, an historian who has researched into the Paris Opera in the 20th century, to imagine the following historical fiction: the arrival of Richard Strauss in Paris in 1942 for an imaginary performance of Capriccio at the Palais Garnier under Nazi occupation.

The relations that Strauss maintained with the Third Reich were complex. Many historians have since formed their conclusions on the matter of the relationship between the arts and the ruling power during that sombre period and anyone wishing to know more about this subject can refer to numerous authoritative works.

The fiction that follows must not be seen in any sense as a reconstitution of what is now well documented history. Here, the past is only a pretext to wander through the passages of the Palais Garnier alongside the composer, and wonder how he would have reacted if he had visited Paris at this hour in her history, on the eve of the French premier of Capriccio. (A.P.)

A few weeks after the first performance of Capriccio at the Bavarian Staatsoper in Munich, the Secretary General for Information of the so-called “French” state sent precise instructions to the general administrator of the Réunion des théâtres lyriques nationaux, Jacques Rouché: the Strauss opera, which had escaped censorship, would be on the bill at the Palais Garnier before the winter was over.

The Parisian premier of Capriccio was the joint project of the head of the Vichy government, Pierre Laval, and the German ambassador, Otto Abetz. The two men saw it as an opportunity to celebrate the start of a new policy of collaboration, evoked by Laval in a radio broadcast early in the summer of 1942. Richard Strauss was himself unaware of these grim implications when he received an official telegram inviting him to Paris where a gala evening was to be organised with all speed. It was to take place six weeks after the maestro’s arrival at the very latest and the missive ended with the following: “I look forward to this friendly reunion in the most beautiful city in the world”.

Before his hasty departure, the composer took the time to write a letter to one of his most faithful French friends, Romain Rolland, whom he was keen to inform of his imminent arrival. He was then driven to the nearest station where he telephoned the director of the Paris Opera to make sure that there were sufficient resources, both financial and material, to put on his latest masterpiece as it deserved. The general administrator, who knew that resources would not be an object, given the nature of the directives he had received both from his superiors and from the Propaganda-Abteilung Frankreich, immediately reassured the composer. By now, Strauss was an old man and felt a sudden burst of youthfulness as he jumped on a train bound for the Gare de l’Est in Paris.  

Werner Egk dirigeant son ballet Joan de Zarissa à l’Opéra, 1942
Werner Egk dirigeant son ballet Joan de Zarissa à l’Opéra, 1942 © André Zucca/BHVP/Roger-Viollet

On his arrival in a country occupied by the Wehrmacht, the composer was struck by the atmosphere that prevailed in Paris. The noises of the city were muffled by a thick blanket of snow and an icy cold, accentuating the strange silence of a town he had imagined as more agitated. Nobody was there to meet him at the station as, once again, the Nazi administrators had got their wires crossed! Each man encroaching on the responsibilities of his colleagues, nobody had actually done anything. The bureaucrats were still pondering over the status of the signatory of the letter concerning the composer’s reception… Strauss, waiting in the blizzard and thoroughly irritated, hailed a rickshaw to take him to the Palais Garnier where Rouché, on the other hand, was there to welcome him. As he made out the silhouette of the theatre through the flurry of snowflakes, the composer was intrigued by the presence of a camera on the pavement of the avenue de l’ Opera, and even more intrigued by what was going on within the range of its lens. Had he but known it, Robert Doisneau had just immortalised one of the harshest winters of the Occupation years!

In front of the theatre, life seemed to be going on as usual and the forthcoming productions, Les Animaux modèles by Francis Poulenc and Werner Egk’s Joan von Zarissa, scheduled for an evening of ballet at the end of the week, were being added to the playbill. Strauss told himself that although Paris had, in spite of everything, remained a great artistic capital, the defeat had not left it unscathed for, if he loved Poulenc, he detested Egk and could not understand why anyone would play his music at the Paris Opera. As he dropped him off beside the hideous sign post for the Militärbefhlshaber in Frankreich at the Hotel Majestic and the General der Luftwaffe Paris at 62, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, the rickshaw driver left him with a tauntingly cynical “There you are, granddad, welcome to our great German capital!”

On entering the Palais Garnier, the composer was welcomed by Raoul Bonnet, a technician who had joined the brigade in 1936 and learnt German with a view to working in Hamburg, Berlin or Munich one day. Bonnet, who had met Hans Eisler in 1937 during the Universal Exhibition, was a fellow campaigner from the Comité de vigilance des intellectuels antifascistes (Committee of antifascist intellectual vigilantes). He had always dreamed of taking part in productions created by artists working on the other side of the Rhine and regretted that Eisler, like so many others, had been banished on the absurd pretext that his work was Entarte Musik or “degenerate music”… After enquiring as to the composer’s journey and state of fatigue, the technician accompanied Strauss to the Salle Messager where Rouché had set up his office.

Strauss took advantage of this to start a conversation:

“How long has the Paris Opera been open again?”

“Oh, for a long time, dear Maestro ! Scarcely had the Gerries entered Paris than they took care to keep the population distracted with entertainment… You can’t imagine how quickly the theatres opened again! We’ve been living with air-raid alerts now for two whole seasons, but it’s business as usual at the theatre, at least, in a manner o’ speaking…”

“But why is it so dark and so cold? It’s as if the entire Palace is asleep! Is it always like this?”

“That’s rationing! No heating! Then there’s the curfew! No lights! You do realise, just because Paris has been declared open, it doesn’t mean we’ve escaped it all! You see,” he told him in perfect German, “the prefecture of Police authorised the reopening of the theatre in August 1940 on one condition: that we limit the number of spectators. As a result, we can accommodate only 1,213 people compared to 2,200 before the war. You’ll have a full house, I’m sure… And the building has been altered: an air-raid shelter was installed straightaway and all the windows were blacked out. That’s why it’s so dark… As for the cold, let me tell you - it’s even worse on an empty stomach… Luckily, the pupils of the School of Dance don’t live in the building anymore as their classrooms, which are all in the attics, are out of bounds.

A man with an impeccably trimmed beard was standing on the threshold of a doorway adjacent to one of the entrances to the stage on the left hand side. It was Jacques Rouché who had come himself to meet Strauss. The two men had known each other since 1913, when Rouché was in Austria visiting theatres and gleaning information on the latest advances in scenography. After exchanging a few pleasantries, they soon began to speak of more urgent matters.

“Have you heard from Romain Rolland? I wrote to him and I’d like to see him as soon as possible to talk about the translation of the libretto of my opera.”

“Alas, my friend, you are likely to be disappointed. Our mutual friend has retired to Vézelay and has maintained an obstinate silence ever since the defeat. Fortunately for this production, we have had your libretto translated into French by two of our most eminent German language experts, Félix Bertaux and Émile Lapointe who have just completed an excellent bilingual dictionary!”

“I’m delighted to hear it, we’ll look at it later… Tell me, what are the means at our disposal for the staging, scenery and costumes and, of course, the cast?”

“I was summoned, no later than last week, for the organisation of the gala performance in your honour, which will take place in the presence of the German authorities… Once we’d dealt with matters of protocol, I asked how the production was to be financed and this is the answer I was given: “The Third Reich is sufficiently wealthy to pay for the galas it organises, which is, in any case, thanks to you French! You will therefore have as much money and whatever means you require.” I won’t conceal from you the fact that I found this manner of presenting things, however true it may be, particularly disagreeable.”

“I agree and I tell you in the strictest confidence that I feel quite ashamed! The Third Reich possesses one single talent and that is its capacity to humiliate. If you only knew… Never will I get over the fact of being denied the right to choose my own librettist, never…”

A siren suddenly blared out. Seconds later, Strauss and Rouché found their conversation drowned out by the deafening noise of the DCA. Glouglou, the fireman on duty, and instantly recognisable by his bottle and the bunch of keys he always carried, staggered into the office. He suggested going down to the shelter, stage right. As they left, the three men encountered the ballet master, Serge Lifar who immediately advised Strauss to go to the Ritz hotel, where the Commandant had booked a suite for him next to his own. The meeting was postponed until the same time the following day.

Richard Strauss en répétition
Richard Strauss en répétition © Albert Harlingue/Roger-Viollet

No sooner had he reached the office of the general administrator of the Réunion des théâtres lyriques nationaux, than Strauss confided his strategy to Rouché in front of the chief technician and the stage manager who were there to organise the French premier of Capriccio and the gala reception which was to accompany it:

“One should never take literally what those Nazis say, I know them all too well! How can they possibly pretend that you could have more resources in a single day than you could hope for in an entire lifetime? Let’s talk about the cast…”

“Vichy and Berlin are insisting on Madame Germaine Lubin who will choose the conductor herself.” Rouché told him resignedly.

The general administrator smiled to himself however, knowing full well what the cogniscenti would say. Indeed, Lubin would let it be known through her agent that, exceptionally and only to please the Paris Opera, (she was a patriot and French above all things) she had accepted a fee of a mere hundred thousand francs – a pittance for her but a year’s salary for an electrician!

“You have my entire confidence as concerns the cast,” Strauss replied,

“and, in any case, we don’t have a choice in the matter. But what of the staging?”

“We will have to be creative,” Rouché told him, before the approving looks of the Head Technician and the Stage Manager. The Performing Arts Federation, which represents the unions in the Paris area, and the old General Workers Confederation have sent me a petition signed by all the corporations employed at the Opera, musicians, artists, chorus members, dancers, rank and file employees… In view of the extra work involved in this production, the employees are demanding “Forced Labour” ration cards if they are to do justice to your work. And the only way to get those is by reducing production costs.”

“I’ve an idea!” said the Head Technician, who was also responsible for the scenery workshops. “Maestro, my dear director, since the subject matter lends itself to it, why not use the theatre itself as the set?”

“Go on!” replied Strauss and Rouché in chorus.

“Well… For example, we could raise the iron at the back of the stage and leave the Foyer de Danse in full view for the last act! Have you ever seen a more beautiful set? And it won’t cost a centime!”

From then on, it was established that the composer and the Head Technician would continue their reflections on the staging for Jacques Rouché’s production of Capriccio.

On the evening of the first night, 357 seats had been reserved by the Wehrmacht: every rank of the army was present at the Palais Garnier, from the simple private to the superior officers. Ordinarily, only 213 places were reserved for officers, including the thirty-six best seats in the house, the boxes at the sides. A chief set decorator who had got wind of this information, grumbled loudly in the corridors of the theatre and Strauss could not help applauding his turn of phrase when he heard him vociferating to his colleagues:

“Comrades, when all’s said and done, I’d rather have those little rats who used to run about the stairs backstage where they’d no business to be, than these grey mice milling about on the steps of the grand staircase on gala evenings. What a nauseating infestation!”

For the opening night, Goebbels himself came to the Palais Garnier. Strauss barely noticed the fact, disappointed as he was to have had no news from his friend Romain Rolland. On the other hand, for more than an hour, the doorman, the firemen, the technicians and electricians were kept in custody on the ground floor of the theatre by the German police who feared an incident. When he recognised the chief set decorator, Jean Rieussec, whistling the Marseillaise as he took up his post by the curtain, the composer felt shivers down his spine. Was it the cold, or a frisson of emotion? Richard Strauss told himself that, in either case, there was a spirit of resistance at the Opéra.

Aurélien Poidevin is professor of history at the University of Rouen. He is a specialist on the social, administrative and cultural history of the Paris Opera in the 20th century. In collaboration with Rémy Campos he is the author of La Scène lyrique autour de 1900, Paris, L’Œil d’or, coll. « formes & figures », 2012, 457 p.

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