Two hours with three Willies

Between 'Hair' and 'Hansel und Gretel', Dortmund can enjoy a musical life of former chancellor Brandt, reports Imre Karacs
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The Independent Online
The orchestra rises to an atonal crescendo. The man in the centre of the stage prostrates him- self in front of the cross. After a meaningful silence, the chorus starts up:

"And then kneels he

who need not

and he kneels for all

who need to

yet kneel not."

Got that? He on his knees is Willy Brandt, former chancellor of West Germany, visiting the Warsaw Ghetto monument in 1970. It was one of the most poignant moments of the Cold War, an immensely important gesture that won him the Nobel Peace Prize. But does it merit a two-hour opera?

Someone obviously thinks so. In Dortmund, where even the fans of the current European football champions sing tunes from Aida, Kneeling Down in Warsaw is packing them in.

Maybe that's a slight exaggeration. After a premiere of many no-shows, the second performance was 40 per cent booked out, and the third 60 per cent. "That's wonderful for a modern opera," says John Dew, Dortmund Theatre's British-born general director. There are plans for five more performances, sandwiched between Hair and Hansel und Gretel.

The world of music has him to thank for the notion of an opera about a politician not long enough dead yet to have passed into legend. Mr Dew brought the opera Nixon in China to Germany, and was inspired. "It was a piece I liked very much."

Brandt has always been one of his heroes. "When I came to Germany 30 years ago," says Mr Dew, "I came here with the impression that Willy Brandt was a very great man. But inside Germany he was a very disputed person. Many people thought Brandt had lived comfortably in exile while the rest of them slaved away trying to win a war."

That is one view, but most left-leaning Germans do credit Brandt for fighting for socialism, opposing Hitler and finally fleeing to Norway - and subsequently Sweden - when there were no other alternatives. He at least, unlike much of the rest of the country, was untainted at the end of the war by Nazism or lack of courage to oppose it.

So he was a hero. Brandt was a courageous governor of West Berlin, took no nonsense from the Russians, and eventually became a very good chancellor. No one needs to make a song and dance about that - it's all in the history books.

What they also record is that in 1974 Brandt's career was brought to an abrupt end by the unmasking of an East German spy in his office. What the academics may not explain is why the great statesman had to resign. Yes, the spy, Gunter Guillaume knew a lot of secrets. Most important of these were Willy's diverse extra-mural activities, which had laid the chancellor open to blackmail. As in Nixon's case, posterity is preoccupied with his scan- dals, rather than his foreign trips.

Guillaume appears in the opera, depicted as a colourless apparatchik. Brandt's adversaries are portrayed as cardboard cut-outs; comic figures at best. The hero himself has few flaws.

"It isn't about Saint Brandt, but we certainly weren't interested in showing his alcohol problem, or problems with women," Mr Dew explains. But, he insists, the opera is no hagiography. "At the end of his life, Brandt questions what it was all about, and there is no answer."

There are, in fact, three Willys in the production: the young, the old and the all-powerful middle-aged Brandt. Sometimes they appear together on stage, dis- pensing words of wisdom to one another.

Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect a critical appraisal of the Social Democrat icon in a town run by Social Democrats since the war. Mr Dew's theatre has an annual budget of DM52m (pounds 17.5m), of which DM44m come from subsidies which need the approval of SPD politicians. An opera about conservative Helmut Kohl is not being planned.

The SPD has organised trips to Dortmund for its members from all over the country, but demand has been underwhelming. Members of the party praesidium booked tickets for the premiere, but all cancelled at short notice. One Brandt offspring has paid a visit; the two widows have stayed away. Only Oskar Lafontaine, the chairman of the SPD, has graced the production - with a foreword in the programme, not with his presence.

The word is out that the libretto, written by Dew protege Philipp Kochheim, is treacly. The music, by Gerhard Rosenfeld, an east German composer criticised under the old regime for being depressing, is sublime, maybe too much so.

But - who knows? - it could catch on. After the performances in the new year, a compact disc will be cut. Then there is talk of taking the production to Bonn and Berlin, though no dates have been fixed so far.

And if this isn't a hit, maybe the next one will be. Mr Dew has already commissioned a new opera from a Chinese composer. It will be about Fidel Castro. Working title: Cuba Libre. To balance things out, someone is also writing a drama for him about Konrad Adenauer, the (conservative) founder of post-war German democracy.