Harry Kupfer, Director and ‘Opera King of Berlin,’ Dies at 84


Harry Kupfer, a German opera director whose inventive and often provocative stagings of Wagner masterpieces put him in the vanguard of a generation that sought to reinterpret the canon, died on Monday in Berlin. He was 84.

His death was announced by his agency, Arsis Artist Management, which said that he died after a long illness.

Mr. Kupfer, whose career began in East Germany, rose to international fame in 1978 with an innovative production of Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Holländer” at the Bayreuth Festival that reframed the story as the fantasy of its heroine. He became the director of the Komische Oper in East Berlin three years later and held that post for 21 years, through the reunification of Germany.

He developed a strong partnership with the conductor Daniel Barenboim, collaborating with him on a post-apocalyptic “Ring” at Bayreuth and later on Wagner’s 10 mature operas at the Berlin Staatsoper. Mr. Kupfer’s extensive work at two of Berlin’s three major opera houses led the German press to call him the “opera king of Berlin.”

Over a six-decade career, Mr. Kupfer would direct more than 200 opera productions and go from enfant terrible to elder statesman. He outraged some purists with concept-driven productions that employed unusual settings, but he also won hoards of admirers — and influenced generations of directors. Early stagings of his that once shocked — as when he set Strauss’s “Elektra” in an abattoir in the 1970s — would hardly raise an eyebrow now.

Mr. Barenboim said that he found Mr. Kupfer’s rehearsals so revelatory that he began attending some that conductors would normally skip.

“He always saw that there was a permanent connection between the stage and the pit,” Mr. Barenboim said in an interview. “Sometimes working together as one, sometimes in counterpoint.”

Mr. Kupfer’s close attention to the score — “I only have ideas with music,” he said in 2002 — was evident in his breakout “Holländer” at Bayreuth. He placed the opera’s heroine, Senta, onstage from the very beginning, and had the opera toggle back and forth between her dream world and external reality, which was suggested at times by the house of her father, Daland.

“The subtlest advantage of Mr. Kupfer’s concept, especially striking beside the work of directors who willfully or ignorantly divorce dramaturgy from music, is its capacity to ‘explain’ stylistic disparities in the score,” Joseph Horowitz wrote in The New York Times. “The riper, more chromatic stretches are associated with the vigorously depicted fantasy world of Senta’s mind; the squarer, more traditional parts are framed by the dull walls of Daland’s house, which collapse outward whenever Senta loses touch with reality.”

The opening-night audience was divided: The Associated Press reported “cheering and booing for 20 minutes after the curtain had dropped.”

Such divisions would be common over the course of Mr. Kupfer’s career.

After Mr. Kupfer returned to Bayreuth in 1988 with a production of Wagner’s “Ring” set after a nuclear catastrophe, the critic Barry Millington wrote that he had highlighted the work’s message “that the abandonment of love and humanity’s finer sensibilities in favor of territorial aggrandizement and enhanced material possessions leads to the despoliation of nature and ultimately global extinction.”

But the staging was panned as “bizarre” by Martin Bernheimer in The Los Angeles Times. He complained that Mr. Kupfer “meddles” and “invents action unsanctioned by the libretto and, more dangerous, brings characters on even when Wagner wanted them offstage.”

Mr. Barenboim said he thought that Mr. Kupfer’s productions ultimately worked, despite their bold interventions, because “he had a great preoccupation that the story really be told.”

“Familiarity does not always breed contempt,” Mr. Barenboim added. “The more familiar the public became with his stagings, the more they liked it. But he was always controversial — and he enjoyed it.”

Harry Kupfer was born in Berlin on Aug. 12, 1935, and fell in love with opera as a boy, often going several times a week.

“When I was 15, it was clear I wanted to work in an opera house,” he told the Australian newspaper The Age in 2002. “As what, I didn’t know. I had no voice, so I couldn’t be a singer. So I studied theater, science, music and came to the opera that way.”

He studied at the Theaterschule Hans Otto in Leipzig and embarked on a career in small theaters in East Germany. He began as an assistant director in Halle, where he made his directorial debut in 1958 with a production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”

He went on to work his way up through theaters in Stralsund; Chemnitz, which was then called Karl-Marx-Stadt; Weimar; and Dresden, before being named to lead the Komische Oper in 1981. His tenure lasted until 2002.

Mr. Kupfer came of age among a generation of post-World War II German directors who embraced Regietheater (“director’s theater”), an approach that jettisoned old production traditions and devised new stagings that often changed the settings of classic works and reimagined some of their plots, with an eye toward contemporary social and political resonances.

A key influence was Walter Felsenstein, the Austrian director who founded the Komische Oper in 1947 and whose ideas of “realistic musical theater,” including a true-to-life approach to psychology and social milieu, inspired a generation of German directors including Mr. Kupfer, Ruth Berghaus, Götz Friedrich and Joachim Herz.

Mr. Kupfer’s work, in turn, inspired a new generation. Barrie Kosky, the current artistic director of the Komische Oper, said in an interview that no director had influenced him in his youth as much as Mr. Kupfer, whose productions Mr. Kosky first saw in the 1980s as a visiting student.

“For a young, naïve, innocent guy from Australia to be confronted with the virtuosity of what Harry delivered from the stage was sort of gobsmacking,” he said.

Mr. Kupfer’s work stood out, Mr. Kosky added, for the musical underpinnings of his ideas; the demands he put on singers to act and use their whole bodies as well as their voices; the emotional core that informed his storytelling; and the way he would direct his choruses.

“I had never seen a chorus move like that, or a director create such images with just 80 bodies,” Mr. Kosky said.

Mr. Kupfer’s productions often had strong political overtones. “He did it to make it universal,” Mr. Kosky said. “It was never dogmatic. You never felt you were being lectured to.”

Mr. Kupfer directed several world premieres, including Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Die Schwarze Maske,” for which he co-wrote the libretto, in 1986, and Aribert Reimann’s “The House of Bernarda Alba,” based on the Lorca play, in 2000.

His wife, Marianne Fischer-Kupfer, a singer and voice teacher, died in 2008. His survivors include their daughter, Kristiane Kupfer, an actress.

Mr. Kupfer’s career came full circle last year. He returned to direct at the Komische Oper in March for the first time since 2002, and chose an obscure work that he remembered fondly from his youth: Handel’s “Poro,” which he had learned at his first job, in Halle. It was a joyous homecoming.

“He remembered the names of the people in the box office, in makeup, and the dressers,” Mr. Kosky recalled. “It was a very touching and moving and extraordinary thing.”

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