Life at the Komische Oper Berlin : A Talk with Byron Knutson

Berlin’s Komische Oper is known as the most Avant Garde of Berlin’s three big opera houses. With a long history of being on the cutting edge of stage directing styles, it affords particular challenges to its singers. One of the people helping the singers to meet those challenges is Canadian-born pianist and coach, Byron Knutson. Knutson is the musical director of the company’s Young Artist Program, a program he proudly describes as being protective of the young singers and setting a foundation for their future successes.

Since moving to Germany a dozen years ago, Knutson worked in Kiel, Halle an der Saale, and then Augsburg before coming to the Komische Oper Berlin in 2009. Of his alma mater graduate program in the desert, Knutson says that while the fact that he cut his operatic teeth in Las Vegas always gets a laugh, he garnered extensive experience as an opera accompanist there, adding that “to this day when accompanying auditions, I’m relying on the skills I learned at UNLV.”

Knutson also speaks highly of his earlier time at the University of Manitoba in his hometown of Winnipeg, explaining that while he was there the school had no graduate programs in music and, therefore, the emphasis of the undergraduate program “was on giving undergraduates everything they needed for the rest of their lives.” Of the school where he received his Artist’s Diploma, the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, he says, “I knew the program was perfect for me and I didn’t apply to anywhere else. I had two really fabulous years in Cincinnati. It was a great experience.”

Our interview took place at the Deutsche Oper, a place where it is easy to find him on any evening, enjoying the show as a busman’s holiday. This particular night we met in the canteen, where the food is good and where he, as an employee of one of the state houses, receives his “Mitarbeiter” discount. We sat down to talk just as the intercom called the orchestra to the pit for a performance of Don Giovanni.

You just came from a rehearsal across town.

I was at a language coaching. We have a new Konstanze for our Abduction from the Seraglio. We have a language coach who has an acting background and teaches voice work for actors. She teaches how to speak with your whole support mechanism and how to use your body as an actor, and she was working on the text with Konstanze and I was playing the piano.

That’s not usual, is it, for an opera house to have an acting/speech person in the room for something like that?

Well, in this case because [the singer] is not a native speaker, and because at the Komische Oper we do everything in German, it seems appropriate that we would have someone on staff who works with the non-German singers. You can imagine the coaching it takes for a Duca in Rigoletto who has sung it a hundred times in Italian and is singing it for the first time in German.

It used to be that most houses here did everything in German, and now the Komische Oper is one of the fewer houses that does everything in German. Can you explain that?

In German-speaking Europe there are three opera houses that do everything in German: the Komische Oper in Berlin, the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz in Munich, and the Volksoper in Vienna. It used to be, until the ’70s, that even in very big houses everything was done in German. So, there are these crazy recordings from the ’50s and ’60s of “Lucia” in German or Aida in German, and that was just how it was and that was OK because singers didn’t travel much in those days. In the ’60s in Germany, there just weren’t that many American singers.

The Komische Oper in Berlin was always—can you hear the air quotes?—“The People’s Opera.” And that has to do with the historical development of our opera house in contrast to the Staatsoper, which was developed from the court opera, and the city opera, which is now the Deutsche Oper. So there was the city opera [the Deutsche Oper] in Charlottenburg for the rich people who lived in the suburbs; and there was the court opera [the Staatsoper] in the historical center of Berlin; and there was us, the Komische Oper in Berlin for the people. So, the kind of repertoire that we played—lots of operetta, lots of popular pieces, and a few more accessible, serious operas—everything was done in German.

After the war, when Walter Felsenstein became the intendant of the opera [1947], it was already tradition, and under him it became set in stone: everything must be in German. Of course, we don’t have the kind of repertoire the Staatsoper or the Deutsche Oper have. We don’t do the big Italian stuff. The biggest Italian pieces we do are Rigoletto and Traviata.
 
No Wagner? Well, you did Meistersinger.

If there’s a Wagner opera to be done in the Komische Oper, it’s Meistersinger. It’s the opera of the people.

Staging at the Komische Oper often has nontraditional takes on traditional repertoire. Can you talk about the tradition of the, say, alternative staging style of the Komische Oper and how that came about? 

Walter Felsenstein, who is the man whose directing style is most clearly associated with the Komische Oper, was very interested in the ’50s and ’60s in a very naturalistic style, which was radical for the time. Nowadays when people see these Felsenstein productions on video, they just shake their heads and say, “How could anybody have thought these were interesting?” Nowadays they’re used to very intense stuff onstage, and this sort of realism is really low key compared to that. After Felsenstein came Harry Kupfer, who was a famous director in Germany in what’s called Regietheater. There’s no English translation for that, but it’s interested in creating productions that have a strong signature of the director.

Like the director who passed away just last year, Christoph Schlingensief?

Exactly. Or Götz Friedrich. If you see a black leather trenchcoat on stage you think, “Oh, it’s a Götz Friedrich production.”

In these types of productions, the demands made on the singers are considerable. For example, Konstanze in your “Abduction” is in a cage, tied up, being twirled around—and the things that are being done to her (and I won’t be explicit here) as she sings her very difficult aria are substantial. As someone who coaches these singers, knowing that these things are going to be asked of them on stage, how do you help them?

Our “Abduction” is, of course, very special. It’s 10 years old and it hasn’t lost its shock value.
 
For the readers: there are lots of naked men showering onstage.

Not lots—one.

 But he showers repeatedly.

Yes. I’m a huge fan of our “Abduction.”
 
So, Konstanze comes to you to work on “Ach, ich liebte” and says, “By the way, at this point I’m in a cage being spun around.”

Well, at this point, everybody knows our “Abduction,” so we just don’t hire a Konstanze who isn’t willing to do it. But our rehearsal process is about finding out what each new Konstanze brings to the part that brings her special hand to it so that we can tweak it so that those things really come to the fore and put her in the best possible light.

How would you say that works in the current production of Lear [a production by Hans Neuenfels]? This is another example where it’s quite demanding of the singer because it’s almost like dance or choreography.

We had an interesting discussion with the [singer playing] Duke of Albany who felt that what he was having to do physically was seriously interfering with his legato and what he had to do with a singer.
 
How did you solve that problem?

By making him aware that there was a problem. We told him, “When you’re doing all that stuff with your hands, just do it with the hands, not the whole body.”

Tell me a little bit about the Opera Studio—how it came to exist and what it came to do.

It’s there to help singers who have finished their training make their first professional steps in a relatively protected atmosphere. They come to us as newbies in the profession and get a lot of support that someone who was a singer in a professional house wouldn’t get. We give them extra acting lessons. For the non-Germans, we give them lots of language coaching. They get lots of musical coaching—not just on the things that they’re preparing for us, but things that they’re preparing for other places: concert work they may have, audition repertoire. We organize auditions for them [and] make sure that we invite people to come see performances that they’re in.

[As far as] how opera programs like this came to exist, in every opera there are [lesser] roles that someone needs to sing, and as an opera house you have a couple of options. You can keep your retired singers sort of half on staff or you can pay people from the chorus to do them—and the problem is that’s all expensive. At some point it becomes more cost effective to hire young singers. The wage for a beginning singer is set by law in Germany.

Since we’re on the topic of the economy, how different is it from when you arrived 12 years ago? 

I think the really big change happened in the mid to late ’90s. It got a lot tougher really quickly.
 
Was that from Eastern European singers coming over and the economy changing after the wall came down?

The market was, of course, flooded with Eastern European singers. I think the more important factor is that in the first couple of years it wasn’t really clear to everyone how much Unification was going to cost—and all of a sudden, in about ’95, everybody woke up.

How much tougher is it for a young singer coming over, hoping to get a fest job?

It’s definitely tough-er. It takes planning and forethought and, ultimately, you just have to jump into the cold water and say, “I want this more than anything else.” The things that you have to be able to do sort of shifted. I cannot emphasize enough how [important] language skills are. It was so different in the ’80s. We all remember the book Kein’ Angst Baby. It’s just so charming and quaint to read it now, because it hasn’t been like that for 20 years.
 
You’re saying that singers need to be speaking German and getting around in German.

Exactly. It only has to do with making yourself more marketable.
 
I’m curious: what is the reputation of American singers in the houses these days? It used to be very good. Is it still that good?

We love American singers. We are so happy that they’re here! They’re well prepared. They’re professionally disciplined. They have an extraordinarily high level of technique. They have an excellent work ethic, generally speaking. American singers learn the International Phonetic Alphabet. In Germany they don’t learn it, and it’s a real drawback. There are some drawbacks to [Americans’ attitudes], but we won’t go into that.

Now I’m curious. What’s the shadow side of those attitudes?

The shadow side is that they think every problem can be solved if someone would just tell them what to do. And that isn’t really true in an opera house. 
 
Speaking of that, what advice would you give to a singer who really wants to move from a student mentality to a professional mentality? What do you think it takes to move that way and say, “I’m working in an opera house; I’m not in school.”

To move from a student mentality to a professional mentality you have to be capable of articulating what you need to get your job done. If you feel a director is giving you something to do that you’re physically not comfortable with, you need to tell someone. You need to tell me. You need to talk to the Regieassistent, or somone. You need to say, “I need help doing this.”

I’m not saying people should go around pointing fingers at everyone. But you need to be clear about what you need to get your job done. If you don’t have the skills you need to get the job done, then you need to get help—and you can get the help only if you know how to ask for what you need. 
 
That assertiveness can be hard if you’re so grateful for being given the job, you don’t want to ruffle any feathers.

It’s a fine line, no question. But for someone in an opera studio, there are always one or two—or, in our case, three—people that they can go to and say, “OK, now the door is closed; we can talk about it.” We offer that level of protection at our studio.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.