"Goethe would have had a heart attack"

12 June 2013

The acclaimed opera director Sandra Leupold is teaching for a semester at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). As the holder of the Klara Marie Faßbinder Visiting Professorship in Women's and Gender Studies, she will be guesting at the Mainz School of Music and at the JGU Department of Film, Theater, and Empirical Cultural Studies.

She has only just arrived coming from her home in Berlin. "I tried to sleep on the train," says Sandra Leupold. Her face betrays that she was not very successful. Nonetheless, Leupold seems wide awake when she talks of the coming evening. Carlo Pallavicino's opera La Gerusalemme liberata is to be performed at the Mainz State Theater, and the director is a little worried. "We haven't done the piece for two weeks. Another rehearsal would have been good."

In 2001, the Rhineland-Palatinate Minister of Education, Science, Continuing Education, and Culture set up the Klara Marie Faßbinder Visiting Professorship. The aim was to create a new impetus for women's and gender studies at the state's universities. The professorship is awarded to an internationally celebrated and eminent scholars.

The 2013 Faßbinder Visiting Professorship has been awarded to Sandra Leupold, who has earned a considerable international reputation as an opera director. She has worked with conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Paolo Carignani, and Simone Young. She directed Les Boréades for the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall, Ariane et Barbe-Bleue in Frankfurt, and Erwartung with Deborah Polaski at the Leipzig Opera. And the theater studies and musicologist scholar is always happy to accept new teaching assignments, whether in Bayreuth, Berlin, or now in Mainz. It is here that the staging of La Gerusalemme liberata forms an important aspect of her work as visiting professor.

Commercial opera in Venice

"You will find this kind of opera particularly exciting," promises Leupold. Then she talks about the various virtues of La Gerusalemme liberata. "We are used to opera being very expensive." Even back in the Baroque period, when the genre was still in its infancy and Monteverdi set the first standard with L'Orfeo in 1607, it was not cheap to stage an opera.

"But just a mere 30 years later, people in Venice came up with the idea of making money from opera. In 1637, a small group of eccentrics founded an opera theater and made the tickets available to everybody, although they were, of course, expensive." Ordinary citizens now also had access to this art form, which up until then could only be enjoyed at the courts of the aristocratic elite. "Soon a city of roughly the size of Mainz today had 16 such opera houses."

And naturally enough, commercialization had its consequences. Composers such as Pallavicino needed to court the audience's favor. The works needed to be colorful and diverse, comical and tragic. This involved putting popular and famous figures on stage, and meant that it was necessary to create new stage sets and experiment with new aria forms time and again. Opera had thus found its mass entertainment appeal.

Film editing as a child of the 17th century

"La Gerusalemme liberata is different to the kind of Baroque operas that audiences today are more probably used to." The arias alone make this apparent: "The shortest lasts just 19 seconds but has everything that makes an aria what it is." Leupold sees parallels to today's film and television industry, and particularly to soap operas. "Film editing, for example, is not a new invention, back then its techniques were also used as stylistic devices."

La Gerusalemme liberata was last seen and heard more than 300 years ago. Leupold has breathed new life into the opera with the help of students at the Mainz School of Music at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. This Young Ensemble will be performing at the Mainz State Theater. The seven-week workshop was challenging and rough on the young singers.

As visiting professor, Leupold is also giving a lecture series entitled "The History of Opera as the History of Women" while she is also offering a seminar on "Gender Identities in Baroque Opera." "The character of women in operas is always based on a male concept of femininity," she says. And it was in the operas of the 19th century that the treatment of female characters meant that they became firmly established in the role of victims. "They tend to be destroyed and killed off using every trick in the book." This is something that particularly interests Leupold and that she tells her students about. "I try to tell this story using the 35 operas that I have already staged."

Aggressive women in the spotlight

Baroque opera is particularly important for Leupold when it comes to sex and gender issues. They certainly put a wide variety of singers on the stage, including men in female roles, castrati as stars .... But at the same time, Baroque operas also have a huge range of female roles. "They are full of women who are surprisingly aggressive and manly."

La Gerusalemme liberata also has such characters. The work, which is set against the backdrop of the Christian conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, has two female characters who are fighting on the side of the Saracens. "These women are witches, warrior-maidens. One of them is dressed in full armor and ready to fight a duel." Her name is Clorinda, and she is the fiancée of the Saracen ruler of Jerusalem. The other is the sorceress Armida, who uses her powers to entice away Crusader knights in order to weaken the enemy. Both fail because they fall in love with a Christian knight, but also as a result of the machinations of a magician among the ranks of the Christians.

"The three dramatic unities of form, action, and time are completely disregarded in the opera," says Leupold, using a perhaps rather odd approach to promote her production. "Goethe would have had a heart attack. He would not have been able to watch something like this." However, La Gerusalemme liberata would be perfectly suitable for the modern audience used to soap opera plots.

Credibility and proximity

"I want to establish intimacy with the audience," explains Leupold of her production. "Many opera singers seem to think that all they really need to do is sing well. Acting for them is merely dotting the 'I's' and crossing the 'T's', but this is an attitude that I work against. The way that they comport themselves on stage needs to be intelligible for the audience. I want to establish credibility." This style has earned Leupold numerous awards and generous applause.

In her productions, nobody is allowed to just stand there like a dummy and belt out their arias. On the Mainz State Theater stage, a surprise awaits the audience ...

La Gerusalemme liberata turns out to be an electrifying spectacle. Crusaders do battle with Saracens. Slapstick collides with grand gestures, comedy encounters arias. The piece has it all – magic, love, and pain. There is hardly any scenery but the quick succession of scenes means that this is hardly evident. Some regular opera-goers seem disconcerted by this curious work, but even they can't help but be captivated by it all.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Leupold expresses some dissatisfaction with the production when the intermission comes. "The work with the students was great," she says. "But we last did the piece two weeks ago..." The audience, however, is absolutely enthralled. There is a roar of applause after the finale.

Leupold can now get ready for her next task. The seminar awaits and her next lecture is coming up this week. "Come on by," she says by way of invitation. "You'll find it interesting."