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"Staging the incendiary opera Biedermann and the Arsonists"

Feature written for The Guardian (2015)


Šimon Voseček’s opera, based on the absurdist satire by Max Frisch, revels in mayhem. The director of the first UK production, Max Hoehn, explains how he orchestrated the chaos.


I am four weeks into rehearsals for the UK premiere of Šimon Voseček’s 2013 opera, based on Max Frisch’s absurdist 1953 play Biedermann and the Arsonists, and the visceral impact of the music continues to entertain and disorientate in equal measure. Enter its soundworld and you’re hit by the wailing clarinets, giggling strings and wild percussion that accompany its colourful lineup of eccentric characters. 


Rehearsing the alcohol-fuelled finale, the cast become increasingly light-headed as they attempt to follow the composer’s directions in the score. “Falsetto: a climax of absurdity”; “chaos is desirable.” Given the source material, it’s not surprising that Voseček’s opera revels in such mayhem. Frisch’s play is a major work of postwar European drama; a satirical fable about bourgeois guilt taken to hyper-theatrical extremes.


One evening in his quiet suburban home, successful businessman and respected member of the community Gottlieb Biedermann is enjoying a glass of wine and surveying the latest headlines about a spate of arson attacks in the area. As he looks up from his newspaper, he finds an enormous wrestler standing in his doorway, asking for shelter. Biedermann permits him to spend the night in his attic. The wrestler is soon joined by a second dodgy-looking individual, a former waiter, full of charm and panache. They then proceed to transport barrels of petrol into the attic, right under the noses of Biedermann and his wife, with the clear intention of burning down their home. The Biedermanns, however, are incapable of evicting the two criminals, or taking any preventative action at all – Biedermann assures his wife the best policy is one of appeasement. It all ends in a smoking pile of rubble and ash.


I responded immediately to the surreal, non-naturalistic elements of the original text. Several productions of the play, including a 1963 Austrian television adaptation and a 2007 production at the Royal Court with Benedict Cumberbatch, adopted a muted, realistic aesthetic to counterbalance the piece’s moments of madness and farce. But Voseček’s music calls for an overtly theatrical approach, particularly with the arsonists.


The wrestler-waiter double act parody middle-class etiquette with their impressive knowledge of bourgeois manners, culture and wine. They express their pyromania in playful rhapsodies on their love of flames and the sound of sirens. To create these demonic figures, designer Jemima Robinson and I decided to give Schmitz the wrestler an exaggeratedly muscular bodysuit and to char the waiter Eisenring’s uniform as if he has just emerged from a blaze.


A trio of incompetent firemen offer another opportunity for stylisation. These three represent the moral centre of the piece, and scold Biedermann for his moral paralysis. But this caricature of a Greek chorus also proves unable to prevent the impending fire. I chose to add angel wings to their costumes, to suggest their role as guardians of society who preach about fire safety with great religious fervour.


The comic juxtaposition of the realistic uniforms and the wings helps to further ridicule these figures who alternate solemn chanting and singing with an emasculated head voice. Further inspiration came from Voseček’s menacing orchestra, which mocks, disorientates and collides with the singers – especially during the explosive finale. The sinister colours and textures of the instrumentation seem to represent the world of the arsonists as opposed to the Biedermanns’. Our production visualises this clash of worlds by creating a hellish pit of rusty barrels of petrol and old gas canisters underneath the Biedermann apartment. The orchestra – the Britten Sinfonia – reside in this subterranean world that is visible to the audience, which incidentally corresponds to Voseček’s instruction for the orchestra to abandon its usual role as accompanist and to have its own strong narrative identity.


Biedermann and the Arsonists is not only a comedy of grotesque characters and bizarre humour but also a timeless, disturbing work about the collapse of secure cultural assumptions and values. Gottlieb Biedermann is no fool; Frisch wanted his audience to identify with his struggle. His failure to deal with the arsonists is driven by a toxic combination of liberal guilt, naivety and plain cowardice – weaknesses that resonate just as much in 21st-century Britain as they did with Frisch’s German audience more than 50 years ago.


When rehearsing Biedermann’s scenes with the tenor Mark Le Brocq, we stressed his everyman qualities. We wanted to share the character’s deep insecurities and contradictions with the audience. It seems to me that if the production concerns itself only with turning the stage into a nightmarish playground for the arsonists, full of theatrical effects and outlandish costumes, the opera risks becoming an exercise in style rather than a morality play for today.


But Biedermann could be any suited worker during the morning rush hour. Putting ourselves in his shoes, would we act any differently? Would momentary panic or a sense of charity blind our judgment? Come to Sadler’s Wells this week and decide for yourselves.

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