Harry Kupfer Dies at 84
The longtime opera director of Berlin's Komische Oper, Harry Kupfer, has died at 84 on December 20, 2019 in Berlin. His management agency, Arsis, said in a statement Tuesday that Kupfer died at his home Monday in Berlin “after lengthy illness.” His late wife, the music teacher and soprano Marianne Fischer-Kupfer, had a daughter, Kristiane, who is an actress.
About Harry Kupfer
Born in Berlin, Kupfer studied theatre at the Theaterhochschule Leipzig from 1953 to 1957. He was the assistant director at the Landestheater Halle, where he directed his first opera, Dvořák's Rusalka, in 1958. From 1958 to 1962, he worked at the Theater Stralsund, then at the Theater in Karl-Marx-Stadt, from 1966 as opera director at the National theater Weimar, also lecturing at the Hochschule für Musik Franz Liszt, Weimar from 1967 to 1972. In 1971, he staged as a guest at the Staatsoper Berlin Die Frau ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss.
Kupfer was opera director at the Staatsoper Dresden from 1972 to 1982. In 1973, he staged abroad for the first time: Elektra by Richard Strauss at the Graz Opera. He was from 1977 professor at the Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber Dresden. In 1978, he was invited to direct Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer at the Bayreuth Festival, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. He staged the story in a psychological interpretation as the heroine Senta's imaginations and obsessions.
Kupfer was chief director at the Komische Oper Berlin from 1981, a protégé of Walter Felsenstein. Simultaneously, he was professor at the Hochschule für Musik "Hanns Eisler" in Berlin. At the opera, he staged Mozart operas in the order of their composition, including Die Entführung aus dem Serail in 1982 and Così fan tutte in 1984. He also staged there Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in 1981, Puccini's La Bohème in 1982, Reimann's Lear, Verdi's Rigoletto and Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov in 1983, among many others. He directed there the premiere of Judith by Siegfried Matthus. In 1988, he staged at the Bayreuth Festival Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Kupfer premiered several operas, including Udo Zimmermann's Levins Mühle at the Staatstheater Dresden in 1973, conducted by Siegfried Kurz. He staged the GDR premiere of Schönberg's Moses und Aron there, also conducted by Kurz in 1975. In 1979, he directed there the world premiere of Zimmermann's Der Schuhu und die fliegende Prinzessin, conducted by Max Pommer, also the premiere of Georg Katzer's Antigone oder die Stadt at the Komische Oper Berlin in 1991, conducted by Jörg-Peter Weigle, the musical Mozart by librettist Michael Kunze and composer Sylvester Levay at the Theater an der Wien in 1999, conducted by Caspar Richter, and in 2000 Reimann's Bernarda Albas Haus, at the Bavarian State Opera, conducted by Zubin Mehta. Kupfer co-wrote the libretto with composer Krzysztof Penderecki of Penderecki's opera Die schwarze Maske. He directed the 1986 world premiere production in Salzburg and the US premiere production at the Santa Fe Opera in 1988.
Kupfer worked in the tradition of realistic directing, as developed by Walter Felsenstein and practiced especially at the Komische Oper Berlin. The works are interpreted with a focus on implications drawn from them; actions on stage, conflicts and the development of drama are related to the score and to the logic of relationships between the characters. Kupfer always worked individually with the singers, including the choir members, requesting talent for acting and rendering credibility to the actions. Kupfer supported Giorgio Strehler's belief in a "human theatre" ("menschliches Theater"). The characters are, in the tradition of Bertolt Brecht's method of dialectic theatre, always placed in historic political context, which determines their actions at least partly.
Dame Anne Evans on Harry Kupfer:
"Of all the directors I worked with – as Chrysothemis, Leonore in Fidelio and Bruennhilde in the Bayreuth Barenboim/Kupfer Ring cycle – Harry was the most thrilling and stimulating."
"He had the ability to recognize your hidden potential as singer and actor and use it to help you build a performance that otherwise you might never have imagined possible. I would have turned somersaults for him if he had asked me to. A few singers grumbled that he was allowed too much rehearsal time, but he knew just how to make use of it to the singers’ advantage. Harry was the last survivor of a group of fine East German-trained directors with whom I had the good fortune to sing: Herz, Friedrich, Berghaus, Kupfer. For me Harry was the greatest of them all. He was hoping to come to London in February to take part in a discussion about his Bayreuth Ring organised by the Wagner Society. Sadly he won’t be present, but he will be very much in the minds of all us there who worked with him and loved him." -Dame Anne Evans
Harmut Haenchen on Harry Kupfer:
"Harry Kupfer enabled me to leave the GDR. After a political problem as chief conductor of the Mecklenburg State Theatre, I was no longer allowed to use my passport…"
"...the first opportunity was Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear. I went to Berlin to talk to Harry Kupfer about it. He knew me from Dresden as a conductor of classical and baroque music and told me in his wonderfully direct way that he couldn’t imagine me mastering such a work.
My argument that I had taken over his Parsifal production in Berlin in front of a Stasi-booked audience didn’t help, because he hadn’t heard it. He still took on the venture with me. This Lear became such an exciting production that in the dress rehearsal references to life in the GDR had to be quickly removed from the introduction. Nevertheless, a great success for Harry Kupfer and also for the conductor, who was invited to the Berliner Philharmoniker. Then to the Netherlands Opera for Elektra, which led to my appointment as general music director at Netherlands Opera and as chief conductor to the Netherlands Philharmonic and the Dutch Chamber Orchestra. This allowed me to leave the GDR. I was not only able to bring the Berlin Productions of Lear to Amsterdam, but also the premiere of Boris Godunov in the new house an der amstel together with Harry Kupfer."