Operetta Research Center
12 November, 2017
Since Offenbach’s Island of Tulipatan has popped up again on the general radar, with a brand new English language recording on Albany Records, I had to think back to why this show has occupied such a singular place in my heart for the past 30+ years: ever since I first saw it in an East-German production at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in the early 1980s. I had ventured, for the first time, as a West-Berlin schoolboy into the Socialist East to attend an opera performance there. I went to see Suppé’s Die schöne Galathée, but it was mostly part 2 of the evening that rocked me sideways. Because I had never before (and have never since) seen an Offenbach production in which the political jokes – almost uttered as asides – caused such massive audience reactions from people living in a behind-the-iron-curtain dictatorship.
We’re talking 1982. I had an adult friend back then who said to me: ‘If you like operetta and Galathée, why don’t you cross the border and go see the show at the Staatsoper?’ So we set out together, went to Friedrichstraße, paid our 25 Deutschmarks in exchange for 25 worthless East Marks, crossed passport controls and soldiers in ugly grey uniforms, and ventured to Unter den Linden. Opera tickets in Socialist East Germany cost practically nothing, maybe 2 Marks for a balcony seat. So we each had 23 Marks left for snacks, drinks and knickknack at the souvenir counter. (You couldn’t take that money back to the West.)
I remember, vividly, how the Suppé overture started and hit me like a hurricane. I had to cry, because it was so overwhelming to hear this music with such energy. The conductor was Robert Hanell. And the bare-breasted production of Galathée was by Horst Bonnet. What immediately struck me about the singers was the fact that all of them were unmistakable character actors with character voices. And they were all really funny!
This became particularly apparent after the interval. From the moment Jutta Vulpius came onto the stage as Theoderine and started a fight with her husband Romboidal (played by Joachim Arndt in an oversized pompous uniform). They got into a hot argument about their daughter’s ‘outrageous’ behavior – going hunting and riding horses, as a girl! (Unheard of.) Each parent was holding the other responsible for this. And I, as the audience, knew this was going to be hilarious from then onwards.
Then Peter Menzel stormed in as Hermosa, in a white riding dress and shot gun under his arm: the “wild bee” (“wilde Hummel”) her parents had complained about. I had never seen anything like it. This was years before La Cage aux Folles came to Berlin. And it was very different from ‘polite’ male-to-female cross-dressing as seen on West-German TV back then. There was something ferocious and proud, subversive even, in the way Menzel sang the ‘Piff Paff Puff’ entrée, marching around the stage with utter abandon. And when Menzel/Hermosa told her ‘concerned’ parents that she’d rather blow the bugle than sit and stitch, I subconsciously knew – as a gay young man who hadn’t yet come out to the world – that there was more to this than silly operetta. A feeling that intensified when Carola Nossek came on as the effeminate Prince Alexis, weeping over her dead canary bird, being scolded by her father for not behaving ‘manly’ enough. It was a lamento I knew from my own father oh so well. It’s probably one of the fundamental not-belonging-experiences every gay person has to live through, at some point. Here it was all summed up in a melancholy waltz.
The full meaning of these aspect of the show didn’t fully register in my brain back then, they only resonated, though I did notice how incredibly queer the seduction scene was, in which Hermosa as the masculine woman shows Alexis-the-timid-man how these things are done – with a rousing ra-ta-ta-plan duet. (Which brought the house down.) In this Berlin version, the two duets between Hermosa and Alexis were combined into one, as restructured by Offenbach for the Vienna premiere. I always found that very effective and more convincing than the French original version.
Then there was the high class comedy of Günter Kurth as Cacatois singing his fake-news couplet – the “Zeitungsenten” song with its quacky refrain – as a total laughing stock character, also in a ridiculous over-decorated uniform, also as a parody of any person in power. The audience roared at every single political allusion. And there were many allusions.
I left the theater that night in love with Offenbach. And when a little later I discovered that this production was going to be on TV – you could get DDR stations in West-Berlin – I sat in front of our family TV set with a simple microphone and recorded Tulipatan.
The very amateur recording that came out of this stayed with me for year. No matter how technically bad it was, I loved it, and listened to it so many times over that at some point I knew the entire dialogue by heart. Talking of which: this production made it clear for me how important dialogue is in operetta, how important story is, and how important real character performers are. All the things that were mostly ignored by other operetta productions at the time and for many years to come.
When I heard other Tulipatan recordings, they never came close to my original experience. I always, immediately, turned back to my old cassette, which I even managed to transfer onto my iPod in a moment a technical adventurousness. Every time I heard the 1982 recording again, I saw a movie in my mind, the memory of that night at the Staatsoper and the repeat performance on TV. (Because I had been so busy with my microphone and keeping other people from entering the room, to not disturb my recording, the TV transmission had only vaguely stuck in my memory.)
As the years passed, my imaginary performance got better and better. Till one day, not too long ago, I had coffee with counter tenor Jochen Kowalsky, himself an operetta aficionado and ardent collector. I told him about this Tulipatan experience, and he said he had a copy of the TV version. He sent the DVD to me by post. And I was shocked…. by the 1980s look of those Galathée costumes. And then rocked all over again by Tulipatan. It was exactly as I remembered it, maybe a little less glossy, but still. The performances of Menzel, Nossek, Kurth, Arndt and Vulpius remain unsurpassed, at least when you compare them with other versions available on CD. One of the main reasons is the dialogue which transports so many of the ground breaking points of this show.
When I listened to the new New York version from LOONY, I wondered why the performers there were so – acoustically – shy about acting out, and why the gender bending twists of the story were handled in such a comparatively restrained manner? And why the new Cacatois was so much less over-the-top pompous than Günter Kurth? And why the obvious political side of these two crazy rulers was downplayed, in an age of Saturday Night Live, Randy Rainbow, and Donald Trump?
Okay, it’s unfair to compare, especially when you’ve loved a particular recording for decades and then you suddenly have to listen to a new one. But one thing about the new Albany Records version is great, under all circumstances: the new English dialogue and lyrics. The LOONY cast delivers both in a straight forward way that makes it clear why Tulipatan deserves attention today, and why it is so newly relevant today when we discuss what it means to be ‘male’ or ‘female,’ ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine,’ and debate what behavior is appropriate for whom.
Considering that there now is a first English language recording, plus various German version from the 1950s, I wish someone would release ‘my’ 1982 TV version on DVD. It must still exist in the vaults of West German TV stations, because the copy Jochen Kowalsky made for me is from an ARD broadcast (ARD being the West German state TV station, which still exists, in contrast to the DDR stations).
Even if someone were to only take the 1982 soundtrack and release it on CD, it would be worth it. Because Hanell’s conducting is superb, as is the playing of the Staatskapelle pre-Barenboim.
In any case, it’s astonishing to realize how such an early operetta outing in my life could have had such a fundamental effect on my entire future career as a musicologist and operetta researcher.
Next week, I am traveling to Bremen to attend a conference on “Homosexuality & Musicology” where I’ll talk about the topic of homosexuality in the field of operetta research. Ever since I saw this Insel Tulipatan for the first time it was clear to me that operetta had something to do with ‘queer’ themes; I was 16 then. For this eye-opening experience I am still thankful: to Offenbach, the Staatsoper, and the friend who took me to East Berlin back then. And I am also thankful to LOONY from bringing all these memories back, with a bang.