Harry Kupfer: German opera director who went from enfant terrible to leading light

His settings of Strauss and Wagner had a big impact on the musical stage

Christine Manby
Friday 31 January 2020 14:37 GMT
Kupfer’s early work outraged many traditionalists
Kupfer’s early work outraged many traditionalists (Alamy)

As the curtain fell on German opera director Harry Kupfer’s daring new production of The Flying Dutchman at the 1978 Bayreuth Festival, the crowd erupted. For 20 minutes, the auditorium rang to the sound of cheers and boos. Kupfer’s bold vision for the opera, which reframed the piece as the heroine Senta’s hallucination, divided the audience at Bayreuth. Later, his post-apocalyptic treatment of Wagner’s Ring cycle and his version of Strauss’s Elektra, which he set in an abattoir, would outrage many traditionalists, but four decades on, this enfant terrible was crowned by the German press as the “opera king of Berlin”.

Kupfer, who has died aged 84, was born in the German capital, and as a schoolboy would skip lessons to see productions at the city’s Staatsoper. Knowing as a teenager that he wanted to work in opera but didn’t have the voice to be a performer, he studied theatre science at the Theaterschule in Leipzig. Upon graduating, he joined the Landestheater in Halle, and made his directorial debut with Dvorak’s Rusalka in 1958. A year later, he married the German soprano Marianne Fischer, with whom he had a daughter.

From Halle, Kupfer moved to the Theater der Werftstadt in Stralsund, which he followed with a stint at the Stadtische Theater in Chemnitz (formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt). The late 1960s saw him in Weimar, where he was opera director of the Nationaltheater and taught at the Franz Liszt Musikhochschule.

In 1981 he became the director of the Komische Oper East Berlin, a role he would hold for 21 years, steering the company through the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany. Kupfer’s work often tacitly challenged the Communist regime. He set Strauss’s Salome against a backdrop made to look like Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse station, complete with armed guards. He believed that opera should be political because “life is political. In every play where people come into contact with each other, it is political.”

While Germany reshaped itself, Kupfer also sought the rehabilitation of Wagner, so long identified with the Third Reich. In an interview, he said that it was time to “finally stop apologising for Die Meistersinger”, which was used in Nazi propaganda, and to reset Wagner’s opera to play in “history, today and nowhere”. In the Nineties, he collaborated with conductor Daniel Barenboim to bring the major Wagner works to the Berlin Staatsoper.

Kupfer was known for working in the tradition of “realistic directing”, in which the work is seen in the context of the relationships between the characters and their motivations. He claimed Bertolt Brecht and Walter Felsenstein as his biggest influences. Though Kupfer always started with the music, he liked to work with artists who had a talent for acting as well as singing. He demanded much of his singers and once broke his own ankle trying to persuade one to attempt an impossible leap.

Over the course of his career Kupfer directed more than 200 productions in opera houses all over the world, from Covent Garden to Tokyo, where he staged his third production of Parsifal in 2014. He eschewed retirement and was still working in 2019, directing a critically acclaimed production of Handel’s Poro back at the Komische Oper, where he had made his name.

Kupfer’s wife predeceased him in 2018. He is survived by their daughter, Kristiane.

Harry Kupfer, opera director, born 12 August 1935, died 30 December 2019

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