Today’s opera rarely dares to address the burning issues of its time and seldom succeeds coherently as now with Bernhard Gander’s “Expel Leider von Wehr and not return”. Opening this year’s Munich Biennale for the new musical theater, this world premiere on the Muffathalle is unique in the world, showing only newly composed operas since 1988.
The title of Gander’s play delivers what it promises. The three soloists, the seven-piece chorus, often act as the soloist, and are always represented as refugees somewhere in Eastern Europe and/or Germany for a continuous hundred minutes, script and direction not specific. In addition, an impressive quintet from the modern band, calibrated to new music, plays electronically distorted death marches, rhythmic despair music, and death dances under the direction of maestro Elda LaRue, in which singers sing and sing more than they sing.
This results in a dizzying gray-gray palette of inhumanity, with all refugees suffering every day between starvation, deportation, humiliation, fear and torture around the world. It is the everyday life of many, which the first rich world knows only from television and Internet images, which is quickly fading away. It’s different at Muffathale. A hundred minutes of misery can be too long, here it is too intense. Songwriter, lyricist and rock songwriter Serhi Zahadan was born in 1974 in Luhansk, which is currently devastated by the Russian war. He likes sentences like “Culture is the ability to speak of life in the presence of the dead” and poetic things like “The night is drenched in insomnia, the night when the parking lots seem spacious, the night of our loneliness, the night of the voiceless.” The original Ukrainian text written in German.
However, Gander is so quickly composed of everything, that one cannot think of sentences, nor can one listen to poetry. That’s ok. As Gander writes revivals of ancient tragedy with its socially critical choirs and singles, he references Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” Kurt Weil’s “Seven Deadly Sins,” and Igor Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex.” In contrast to the Romantic period, with which many composers have not yet finished, the focus here is not on the individual afflicted by his small illness, but on the group of those who are harassed.
This opera bears witness to the voices of the expelled and also confirms its meaning
Theon Musk erected a wall, on the right is a vandalized car, among which are many bags, with which one sees refugees in the streets. The grandiose chorus stands against the soloists in the cool scene. Karl Romstadt and Andrew Robert Moon give two detainees awaiting deportation, Antonia Ahyung Kim, mother. Because of Gander’s old voices, whipping rhythms, and decidedly unemotional attitude, the evening never turns into a dread show. However, actress Nadine Gersbach delivers on it. With her, Zahdan’s lyrics, softened by Gander’s music and influence on the liturgy, seem self-grumbling. This weighs down the evening. Director Alize Zandwijk would have liked to have been able to toughen things up here, after all not allowing any other superficial updates this evening, which require no sympathy and no crying. Because the composer Gander wants to rock, upset, and scratch the wealthy’s sense of worth. He’s very good at that.
Essay writer Serge Zahadan not only presents editorial horror paintings, but also tries to put them together. Transfiguration and feelings are not his business, where he meets his composer. He also knows that art is something different from reality, and he cannot adequately portray it. But how can a copywriter credibly emerge from a hopeless situation that tens of thousands of refugees live in every day?
So Zadan gives the psychologist an unsurprising assumption of fate. His refugees are deported to the homes they left for good reasons, where they face imprisonment, torture and death. “Are you ready to look life in the eye?” The libretto asks and then formulates a critical artistic mission in the face of human suffering: “Be our witness, prickly language… Are you ready to witness death?… Watch the voices of the inhabitants of burning cities awaken from sleep.” Art can do no more, and that is exactly what this opera does, which also emphasizes the meaning and necessity of an art form often seen as solitary entertainment.
With “Songs of Expel and Never Return,” the 4th Biennale organized by composer duo Manos Tsangaris and Daniel Ott, calibrated toward experiments, began with a strong commitment to the traditionally closed form, which, paradoxically, despite all the echoes of tradition, has succeeded in emerging contemporary and modern. This is amazing in the midst of plague and war. It is amazing that the highly cultural form of opera has not yet lost its social significance.