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Sound, movement and truly strange wigs with Herbert Fritsch at the Wiener Festwochen

Speaking in a post-show chat about his opera Ohne Titel No. 1, which was performed as part of the Wiener Festwochen in Vienna in June, theatre artist Herbert Fritsch compared the compositional structure of his opera to that of jazz: “In jazz music, an improvisor doesn’t just do whatever he wants when he wants to– he sticks to a set form.” Fritsch’s structures kept his performers in lockstep during this semi-improvised, 90-minute comic opera/theatre piece.

Performed at Vienna’s historic Burg Theater, the piece made good use of the whole stage and much of the audience area. The opera opened with the twelve cast members and tiny three-piece orchestra running through the audience to the orchestra pit, where (after a few overly-obvious sight gags) they played the overture on recorders, slide whistles, and various percussion toys. Then, the cast jumped onstage towards the giant, 3-metre-high couch that served as a set and began to perform a brisk combination of sung and spoken nonsense words.

Herbert Fritsch – Photo by Axel Schmidt

Herbert Fritsch–Photo by Axel Schmidt

Musically, this opera borrowed harmonic material from the American songbook. The orchestra of drum kit, prepared piano, and electronics/percussion worked from simple chord structures that provided a background for experimentation and improvisation. It sounded like an eerie, slightly ambient, sometimes dissonant Broadway musical. On stage, the performers used their voices, their thick plastic wigs, their feet, and a cork gun to make noise. They also worked with silent, visual rhythms– swaying bodies in unison, waving a large stick, tossing one of the smaller performers over the back of the very large couch. These visually rhythmic elements made it a very physical opera that relied as much on the performers’ bodies as much as their voices.

The jazz-style structure was apparent from the start, with a series of solos and duets being interspersed with short full-group scenes which blended seamlessly into one another. The solos contained both improvised and pre-determined elements, though the difference was not apparent. Standout scenes involved melodic strings of nonsense which clearly used sounds from particular languages but contained no actual words. The performers brilliantly channelled Viennese dialect as well as stodgy public radio High German and American English from the golden age of cinema, all to very comic effect. These outpourings of half-sung, half spoken monologues were tightly knit with the band, at times rhythmic and at others purely comic. Some solos carried on too long for the joke to last, and there were one too many fart jokes, but overall, the fast pace and quick scene changes kept the feeling both funny and weird.

Ohne Titel No. 1 – Photo by Thomas Aurin

Ohne Titel No. 1– Photo by Thomas Aurin

With this piece, Fritsch could have made a statement about the more absurd elements of contemporary opera. Many elements pointed loudly in the direction of satire– the wonky visual proportions of the set and costumes, the swooping exaggerations of the acting and onstage movement, the twisting of recognizable music into surreal sounds. But Fritsch himself is not an artist who cares for political or conceptual performances. Arriving at directing later in his career, he worked for many years as an actor at the Volksbuehne in Berlin. On stage, he had a knack for comedy, displaying what has been called an “uninhibited pleasure in exaggeration.” He carried this aesthetic with him when he began directing at age 56. The resulting stage works are rare on German-speaking stages– extroverted, funny, and light. “The fundamental driving force of theatre is entertainment, even when it is telling a sad story,” Fritsch has said. Which explains the sensation of listening to and watching Ohne Titel No. 1. The skill, sincerity, and total dedication of the performers was apparent. The onslaught of comedy was constant. Everything was tinged with a surreal kind of sarcasm. But the piece didn’t try too hard to point to to any genre barriers that have not already been trampled on. It was simply a liberating and entertaining evening of sound, movement, and truly strange wigs.