OBITUARY : Ruth Berghaus

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The Independent Online
No sooner has the death of Heiner Muller begun to be absorbed by the theatrical world, when another of post-war Germany's great cultural figures has died: Ruth Berghaus, the internationally acclaimed opera director.

After studying dance under Gret Palucca and Wolfgang Langhoff in the early 1950s, Berghaus started her career as a choreographer, and it was in this field she first came to international attention - almost overnight - with her direction of the battle sequences in Brecht's version of Coriolanus at the Berliner Ensemble in 1964. She continued her work there throughout the Sixties, both as director and choreographer. When Helene Weigel, Brecht's widow and then Artistic Director of the Berliner Ensemble, died in 1971, she left instructions that Ruth Berghaus should succeed her at the BE's helm. The previous year Berghaus had been elected to East Germany's Akademie der Kunste; by 1978 she would be on its executive board.

During her years as head of the Berliner Ensemble, until 1977, Berghaus instituted a programme exploring new aesthetic principles, promoting the works of new young writers and continuing the BE's tradition of definitive productions of Brecht's (and his mistresses') oeuvre. She was a champion of the work of Heiner Muller.

From 1977 onwards, Berghaus concentrated almost exclusively on opera direction, working regularly with the Deutsche Staatsoper as well as internationally. She consolidated her reputation in Frankfurt, where, from 1980 to 1987, she directed a series of highly praised productions in collaboration with the conductor Michael Gielen. Their 1987 Gotterdammerung received a truly Wagnerian 75-minute ovation. In the 1980s her work was in demand throughout Europe, leading to productions in Paris, Dresden, Hamburg, Vienna - even Cardiff, where she directed a highly controversial Don Giovanni for the Welsh National Opera in 1984.

"Highly controversial" applies, indeed, to virtually all her opera productions. Her work was often a negation of naturalism. Imagery, sign, gesture and visual contradiction were for her more important than narrative. Hence the spindly army of men climbing with excruciating slowness like ants up two nearly vertical white walls in the "Wolfsschlucht" scene in her 1993 Zurich production of Der Freischutz; the mock-executions by the children's chorus in her 1982 Berlin production of Die Veturtellung des Lukullus, an opera by her late husband, the great composer Paul Dessau; Elektra manically tearing up newspapers in the eponymous opera while her sister, Chrysothemis, does the ironing (Zurich, 1991).

Attempting to explain her aesthetic ideal on the staging of opera, she offered a parable:

A boy sits doing his homework while, simultaneously, he has the television switched on without sound and listens to hard rock on his cassette player . . . The boy is on the verge of accepting and learning to bear this century. His evening's arrangements are a childish model of our global situation, with all of its tugging contradictions.

The collapse of Communism and the reunification of Germany virtually brought a halt to Berghaus's career in Berlin, where bitter in-fighting and political manoeuvring took their toll; she was pushed out of her position at the Staatsoper by a rival director, Harry Kupfer, Artistic Director of Berlin's Komische Oper.

She continued to work both in other German cities and abroad, however, and did so even whilst suffering from her ultimately fatal illness. Her last production was the Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus in the Leipzig Opera House, which opened on 25 November 1995. A strict disciplinarian in the opera-house, she was not always an easy director with whom to work; that she worked virtually until her death is both a testament to her talent and her tenaciousness.

Naturally, she was embittered by her treatment in Berlin in the last few years and often harshly critical of the way post-reunification artistic policies and aesthetics were being handled in the former East Germany. But there was always her famous, biting humour. One of the last occasions I saw her was at the opening of an exhibition of the Paul Dessau Archive at the Akademie der Kunste in March last year. Being involved in a play at the time, I couldn't stay for the opening speeches. I apologised to Berghaus for having to dash off, explaining that I had to get to the theatre in time for call, and that, as the work I was involved in was so embarrassingly poor, I wasn't prepared to tell her where or what it was.

Without missing a beat, she said, "It must be the Berliner Ensemble, then!"

Ruth Berghaus, opera and theatre director and choreographer: born Dresden 2 July 1927; married 1954 Paul Dessau (died 1979; one son); died Zeuthen 25 January 1996.