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Into the Black Forest With the Greatest Living Artist

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“I just randomly took them out,” she said. “This is the last one on the shelf, and this is the first one.”

“Oh, I was really young,” Kiefer said. “That was in 1969. I was 21.”

You would have turned 24 in 1969, I thought, but I didn’t say anything, and instead began to leaf through the book. I saw some sketches that looked like copies of Renaissance works.

“What were you doing then? Were you studying art?”

“No, no. In 1966 I started to study law in Freiburg, at the university. I always thought I was an artist. But I had a complex. I thought, I don’t need art school. I thought, I am a genius.”

“Really? You thought you were a genius when you were 21?”

“Yes. In one of these books I wrote once, ‘I’m the greatest painter, and there’s no doubt.’ Heh heh heh heh! Today I wouldn’t say that, it is complete nonsense. What is ‘the best’? But in those days, I believed it. I wrote it down like a law case, you know? That there’s no doubt, I am the best.”

Around noon, Forelli reminded Kiefer that the workers were melting the lead downstairs.

“Let’s pour some lead, then” Kiefer said. He looked at me. “Do you want to see that?”

“I would love to see that,” I said.

“Ah, good, good. It is a big action always. Before, I did it all myself, you know,” he said. “I poured it myself. And it was so dangerous. Once I was covered with lead, it was in summertime, I had only shorts, and then the handle broke. Then the lead was going down and gluing to my skin. I have a lot of hair, and I had to take it away like this. …”

With his hand he showed me how he had removed the lead from his legs.

“Because it was a shock, you know, you have no pain. Then I put myself in white linen — it was the best thing to do, the doctor told me that — and, heh heh heh, then there was after some days a crust. The problem was that the blood didn’t circulate so well, because the crust was so hard. It was a problem for months. But I survived. I have a brother, you know, and he is a doctor. He said: ‘You should have died. From all the lead..”

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Editorial

A London ‘Fidelio’ With a German Twist

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This season, opera in London speaks with a German accent.

At the Royal Opera House, the director Tobias Kratzer wants to tap into the spirit of Beethoven with a fresh production of “Fidelio” in a year of celebrations that mark 250 years since the composer’s birth.

In just a few years, Mr. Kratzer has shot to prominence with a string of acclaimed productions across Europe. His recent triumphs include an emotionally wrenching production of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s “Der Zwerg” at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and a mischievous “Tannhäuser,” which won near universal acclaim at the 2019 Bayreuth Festival.

“Fidelio,” with sold-out performances through March 17, marks Mr. Kratzer’s debut in the English-speaking world. In London, he is one of the youngest practitioners of a German stage philosophy sometimes known as Regietheater (literally, “director’s theater”) that often takes liberties with plot details and can subject canonical works to strenuous deconstructions.

Speaking between rehearsals in early February, he sounded unfazed by the challenge of bringing his avant-garde sensibilities to London’s main opera house, even if doing so rubs up against local traditions.

“The idea of having a director not only arrange things, but really to interpret pieces, is more or less a German invention, dating back to the time of the Weimar Republic,” said Mr. Kratzer, 40. If London or New York audiences expect more from a production than mere window dressing, the influence of German directors is part of the reason.

“The British theater tradition is still much more based on a narrative level, while the German tradition starts from a more deconstructive point of view,” he explained.

But Mr. Kratzer’s productions show that a director can approach a well-known opera from an unusual angle without destroying it. His Bayreuth “Tannhäuser” turned Wagner’s minnesinger into a prankster whose anarchist pals include a dwarf and a drag queen; his Berlin “Zwerg” read between the lines of the libretto to construct a portrait of the tortured composer.

Such approaches may prove refreshing to audiences for whom German opera productions often carry a stigma as chaotic spectacles.

Mr. Kratzer feels a primary responsibility to communicate a piece’s emotional weight in order to connect with his listeners even as he surprises them. “This doesn’t mean that you have to fulfill an audience’s expectations,” he said, “and it doesn’t mean that you need to break them at any price.”

Over the past decade, London has seen more examples of German theatrical styles, and this season, some of Mr. Kratzer’s compatriots have been tasked with new productions. At the Royal Opera House, Claus Guth stages “Jenufa” later this month, followed by Christof Loy’s new “Elektra” in May. At English National Opera, Tatjana Gürbaca directs a new “Rusalka” in late March.

Oliver Mears, the Royal Opera House’s director of opera, invited Mr. Kratzer to direct “Fidelio” after seeing Mr. Kratzer’s 2018 “Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” Jacques Offenbach’s opera about a hard-drinking poet and his sad love affairs, in Amsterdam.

In “Fidelio,” a devoted wife assumes a false identity to break her husband out of prison. Like “Hoffmann,” it is an opera that is easy to be jaded about.

Part of what fascinated Mr. Kratzer about “Fidelio” was how Beethoven, writing in the aftermath of the French Revolution, used opera as a medium capable of delivering a political and personal message. “He’s really trying to use this art form almost as a philosophical tool,” he said. “And this is a starting point for a tradition that goes through Verdi and Wagner, up to Helmut Lachenmann,” he said.

The contemporary challenge for a director, Mr. Kratzer said, is to find a way to present Beethoven’s only opera that expresses its idealistic message. A searing ode to the Enlightenment and to marital love, “Fidelio” is a piece whose faith in lofty ideals can easily seem naïve and dated.

In his productions, Mr. Kratzer seems to purposely avoid any sort of instantly recognizable, signature style, preferring to approach each work on its own terms. In the case of “Fidelio,” he said, he was aiming to convey something of the piece’s radical idealism in a production that fused modern and traditional elements.

“I think even in a period piece there can be completely modern, psychological investigations,” he said. “For me, it’s not primarily a matter of setting an opera in modern times or not. For me it goes deeper. You can have quite a modern production in a period staging, and a pretty old-fashioned production in 20th or 21st century settings.”

“The specific challenge of this piece is that it has a very optimistic, utopian message,” he continued. He added that it is very easy now for directors to fall into the trap of actively undermining the opera’s message (and many have). “Looking at the world today, it’s quite easy to be cynical about this opera,” Mr. Kratzer said.

“Times are difficult for utopia,” the director added. “In this anniversary year, I’d like to recapture the spirit Beethoven intended for this opera,” he said. “It’s a hard goal, but worth aiming for.”

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Editorial

What to See and Experience in New York City This Spring

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Afrobeats isn’t a particular rhythm, like dancehall or dembow. It’s more like a magnet, drawing on and realigning possibilities from across Africa and the African diaspora with a Nigerian sensibility. Davido’s songs have elements that are familiar to American audiences: crisp programmed drum-machine sounds, computer-processed vocals, guest rappers and R&B singers. Like rappers and reggaeton artists, he devotes most of his songs to bragging and romancing.

But in Davido’s music, the programmed beats also mesh with African percussion, twisty guitar and keyboard lines and rhythms from across Africa and the Caribbean. Lyrics in English share space with African languages. And even with Auto-Tune, the personality in Davido’s voice still comes through. His Afrobeats is world music with an African aesthetic of smooth omnivorousness and calm mastery. JON PARELES

STAGECOACH Of the many mainstream country music festivals that pepper the United States each spring and summer, Stagecoach has historically been the least preoccupied with orthodoxy. In part, that’s because of where it’s held — the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif., the same field that hosts Coachella — and who throws it: the Coachella promoter Goldenvoice, which isn’t unreasonably beholden to Nashville’s illuminati.

But also, in recent years, country has been loosening up at the fringes, a movement well captured by the 14th iteration of this festival, which runs from April 24 to 26. At the superstar level, it offers an unlikely blend: the soaring Carrie Underwood and the swaggering Alan Jackson, the snarling Eric Church and the genial Thomas Rhett.

But the middle section of the bill is most intriguing — the Southern rock titans ZZ Top; the soft-rock crooner Brett Young and also the hip-hop-conversant LoCash; the unerringly sincere Dan + Shay and the pitch-perfect ironists Midland. Stagecoach also showcases an impressive array of female singers: Gabby Barrett, Ingrid Andress, the Haden Triplets, RaeLynn, Nikki Lane, and naturally, Tanya Tucker, still collecting her flowers.

And finally there are the outliers, acts that might not be booked at any other country festival, but make plenty of sense nonetheless, like the D.J.-producer carpetbagger Diplo and the queer country performance artist Orville Peck. And also the viral country-rap phenom Lil Nas X, who is a pop star though maybe not a country star (or for that matter, a rap star), but makes complete sense at a festival that’s an open-eared revue of the genre and the directions in which it may someday venture. JON CARAMANICA

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Editorial

Review: ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ Has Its Ups and Ups

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Let us survey the many moods of Molly Brown: She is perky, chirpy, spunky, bubbly, cheerful. Even stranded on a raft after the Titanic sinks, she can’t help being, ahem, buoyant.

The resilient heroine of the Meredith Willson musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was always an upbeat go-getter, with an action-packed journey that took her from a hardscrabble Rockies mining town to the Denver upper crust. But the Transport Group revival that just opened at Abrons Arts Center has turned Molly (played by Beth Malone, a Tony nominee for “Fun Home”) into a human exclamation mark. The production is simultaneously busy and lifeless — a feat of sorts, if not a desirable one.

The 1960 show was Willson’s follow-up to “The Music Man,” and lightning did not strike twice: There was a Hollywood adaptation four years later, but the stage steered clear, and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” doesn’t appear to have been revived on Broadway or Off in nearly 60 years.

The choreographer/director Kathleen Marshall and the book writer/lyricist Dick Scanlan must have seen an opportunity to give vintage material a fresh start, so they went back to the drawing board: According to the production notes, “none of the characters in the 2020 version appear in the 1960 version. Both have characters called Molly, but she says and does different things. The two versions share three lines of dialogue.”

Fewer than half the songs are from the original show, including the fine “I Ain’t Down Yet” and “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys.” The rest are pulled from Willson’s catalog with a mix of tweaked and entirely new lyrics by Scanlan. (This revisal has been in the works for about 10 years, with productions in Denver and St. Louis.)

The title character is based on the actual Molly Brown (1867-1932), though both Scanlan and his predecessor, Richard Morris, have played fast and loose with the facts. Which is fine, since musicals tend to believe that if the legend becomes fact, it’s best to sing the legend.

The problem is that Scanlan and Marshall give us a one-note dynamo whose needle never leaves a positively aggressive red zone.

Molly, née Tobin, is now a fearless, progressive woman speaking truth to power. The tone is set when, facing an all-male Senate hearing in an introductory scene, she is told, “You have been warned, nevertheless you persist: Settle down.”

That is how the show rolls: with all the subtlety of a Hummer.

And there is plenty more where that came from in this protracted tale of resilient feminist pluck.

Newly arrived in Leadville, Colo., the young Molly wins over the local workers; befriends a pregnant widow, Julia (Whitney Bashor); and ends up marrying J.J. Brown, the manager of a silver mine (David Aron Damane).

“I can be anyone I wanna be, why not be a queen?” Molly muses. She and J.J. don’t achieve royal status, but they do strike it rich. Her folksy, rough-hewed attitude appalls Denver’s ladies who lunch until — you guessed it — she charms them, with an assist from some spiked tea.

And so it goes. Molly becomes a women’s suffrage activist. Molly fights for workers’ rights and helps the needy (“Why shouldn’t one of Denver’s ‘better families’ help Denver’s families do better?,” she says).

Although Malone almost never leaves the stage, she is not given much to work with by either Scanlan or Marshall and compensates with unbridled “I’m auditioning for Peter Pan” enthusiasm.

Eventually Molly learns J.J. had an affair (which took place offstage, lest the audience be subjected to anything vaguely resembling moral ambiguity or dramatic stakes) and decamps to Europe. Neither the decadent old continent nor the Titanic can bring her down, however. Soon she’s back in New York, where she stands up for an indigent immigrant whose entry is blocked by an immigration officer, while a repentant J.J. waits in the wings. You may never have yearned so much for a show’s heroine to calm down, even for a second.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Through March 22 at Abrons Arts Center, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, transportgroup.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

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