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Interview with Adam Benzwi on »The Pearls of Cleopatra« at the Komische Oper Berlin
Retro enthusiasm for 1920s Berlin has reached a pitch again. Doing the swing, partying as if there were no tomorrow, the finger wave hairstyle, cigarette holders … Sounds a little like fancy dress? Not for Adam Benzwi! The pianist, conductor and head of music for the Musical/Show course at the Berlin University of the Arts has already revived a raft of dazzling operettas from that period. On 3rd December, following on from »Ball at the Savoy« and »A woman who knows what she wants!«, the Komische Oper Berlin now presents the premiere of »The Pearls of Cleopatra« by Oscar Straus, the story of the beautiful Egyptian queen’s sophisticated attempts to prevent war. Barrie Kosky directs, Adam Benzwi conducts. So now the question: would the San Diego-born musician not actually prefer to have lived in 1920s Berlin?

I definitely would have, yes! I feel a strong attachment to that age. When I’m rehearsing pieces by Friedrich Hollaender with my students and they’re loving the songs, I get this sense that Hollaender’s in the room giving us his blessing. Or say I’m nervous just before a performance: I think of Fritzi Massary and it’s as though she’s helping me pluck up courage.

You’re almost thought of as kind of the "truffle pig" for operettas from that period. How did these works get forgotten in the first place, so that they now have to be painstakingly revived?

If you ask me, the American occupation after World War Two led to American music especially coming to be seen as positive, sexy, vibrant and touching. There was also this deep need for harmony, which led to a lot of ‘20s stuff being slightly watered down.

Later, in the ‘70s, people found the 1950s versions of these pieces downright tasteless. What about today?

It may be that people have had their fill of this type of American, moody, ecstatic superficiality. Maybe they’ve ditched their own German sense of humour. I don’t know. For my part, I love it when songs have punchlines, when there are things you can smile at. Those wordplays! For instance, »Meine kleine Liebesflöte« is the name of a song in »The Pearls of Cleopatra«. Everyone knows what it’s alluding to. This kind of humour that’s possible in the German language is unique. Germans should have no truck with people who claim they have no sense of humour!

What condition are these works that have been neglected for so long in? What kind of problems crop up when you opt to revive something like »The Pearls of Cleopatra«?

There are difficult aspects but also great opportunities. The biggest problem is the score, the sheet music, which tends to be chaotic. There was a lot of stuff being produced back then and not much attention being paid to accurate notation. There are a lot of errors and at certain points it’s hard to know what a composer was trying to get across. But this lack of precision has its own advantages: no one is familiar with the work, there are no expectations attached and we can really get creative. We’re able to present the material as it suits us and our capabilities.

And what’s special about the Komische Oper’s production of »Cleopatra«?

It’s going to be very entertaining, definitely funny, but also quite touching. The main thing, though, will be the exquisite input from orchestra and chorus. After all, they play a lot of Mozart in the normal course of things and cover the entire classical repertoire. We could do »The Pearls of Cleopatra« in the BKA Theater as a cabaret act with appropriate band etc. But no, our »Cleopatra« is going to have two sides to her: she’s going to be both cultured and salacious.

How does that come across in an age where sex sells, pornography is freely available and sexism in advertising is the order of the day?

It’s feasible because it’s subtle and refined and literary. For instance, Cleopatra has a young lover, Beladonis, the diplomat with the pretty little love flute. When they come to say goodbye, she sings »My Prince, adieu for evermore! Our farewell hurts and I am …sore.« And it’s only because of the way she sings it, that we realize ‘Ah, so they were going at it hammer and tongs last night.’ It’s precisely these kinds of double-entendre that are no longer fashionable, and for that reason, too, I have a soft spot for them. Because anything you want to see nowadays - nudity, sex, etc - it’s all there for the taking, but a wordplay like that can really have an impact somewhere in your imagination.

Interview: Renske Steen

© Jan Windszus Photography
(c) Jan Windszus Photography