Rhinegold Harry Kupfer, one of the foremost influences on opera staging in postwar Europe
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Ashutosh Khandekar

Remembering Harry Kupfer: a towering figure in opera directing

10:53, 20th January 2020

Harry Kupfer, one of the most prominent figures in European opera directing in the postwar era, died on 30 December 2019 aged 84

In a career that spanned 60 years, Kupfer’s early productions took place behind the Iron Curtain in communist East Berlin. Influenced by the legendary theatrical innovator Walter Felsenstein, his productions played a huge part in the development of Regietheater – productions that took the spotlight away from opera as a showcase for singers and shone a powerful (detractors of the approach will say unilluminating) new light onto opera as theatre, exploring psychology, drama and social issues. Politics, he said, were fair game in opera and a necessary subject to address for any director. His Bartered Bride, for example, staged at Covent Garden in 1989, stripped away the façade of cutsie folklore to explore the socio-political forces at work at the heart of Smetana’s comic opera. This approach was typical.

During the 1970s and ’80s, Kupfer began directing in the West, including searing, psychologically intense productions for Welsh National Opera and English National Opera that were deemed ‘earthshattering’, ‘savage’ and ‘profound’. His staging of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer for the Bayreuth Festival in 1978, with its focus on the work’s psychodrama, was hailed as a landmark in the festival’s history. Kupfer was invited back to Bayreuth in 1988 to stage a Ring cycle, in which he gave a visionary critique of capitalism, encompassing themes such as social breakdown, economic collapse and environmental disaster, just a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Kupfer was born in Berlin in 1935, and loved opera from an early age. He made his production debut in Halle with Rusalka in 1958 and he learnt his directing craft in culturally thriving provincial theatres in East Germany, including Stralsund (1958-62), Chemnitz (1962-66), and Weimar (1966-72).

In 1972, a year after his Berlin debut, he was appointed opera director at the Dresden Staatsoper, where he remained until 1981. Thereafter, he found his creative home as artistic director of the Komische Oper Berlin where, with his trademark mix of mythic flights of imagination and gritty contemporary social observation, he created a compelling series of productions which remain influential to this day. In 1960 he married soprano Marianne Fischer, who died in 2008. His daughter, Kristiane Kupfer, is an actress and teacher.

Even with a prolific career behind him, Kupfer continued to work on the international stage until his death, returning to the Komische Oper with an acclaimed production of Handel’s Poro in 2019.

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