Joanna Garfinkel is part of the creative team behind the world première production of Berlin: The Last Cabaret, part of the PuSh festival. (photo from the artist)
The world première of Berlin: The Last Cabaret, presented at Performance Works Jan. 23-26 by City Opera Vancouver in association with Sound the Alarm: Music/Theatre, is almost sold out. Part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, the only tickets that remain will be sold at the door, though writer and Jewish community member Joanna Garfinkel told the Independent, “I hope we are able to add more presentation opportunities, as well, since this is truly becoming an exciting and rich production.”
Set in Nazi Germany in 1934, a group of artists must decide whether or not to perform their new political show – which, reads the press release for Berlin, “challenges state media, calls out the Nazi classification of gay individuals as ‘degenerates’ and includes parodic inflection that women are being marginalized” under the new regime – or save themselves.
The opera takes place “two weeks after ‘the Night of Long Knives,’” said Garfinkel, “when the future had been cast, but many were not yet seeing it, including my own family. One thing that interested me a great deal is how people are forced to make compromises under oppression, and even make excuses for what’s happening around them.”
The “Night of the Long Knives” was the June 30, 1934, purge by Hitler of more than 85 members of the Sturmabteilung, the Nazi party’s initial paramilitary wing.
Rather than being a satire itself, Garfinkel explained that Berlin: The Last Cabaret “is more an unearthing of the under-heard Jewish and queer artists who flourished in the Weimar era and were crushed by the Holocaust. The humour we employ is their urgent satire, which feels fresh and relevant with all that is going in the world right now.
“My own family escaped from Berlin to Winnipeg (eventually), so I am both bound to respect and honour the history, and also privy to the dark humour we employ about it.”
City Opera Vancouver approached Garfinkel last spring, she said. They had “heard about me from my dramaturgical work with Playwrights Theatre Centre and the historically based Japanese Problem for my own company, Universal Limited. I was excited by the opportunity to work with an opera company, which would be new to me, but on something quite close to my heart, history and interest.”
The relevance of the opera was one of the reasons she joined its creative team. In regard to choosing projects in general, she said, “Right now, it feels like art must be speaking to the world and on behalf of marginalized voices. Theatre is too much work, and the world too messed up, to work on projects that don’t resonate on an activist level. I am lucky right now to get to choose to work on things that are so resonant.”
Garfinkel, who is billed as librettist for the production, clarified that categorization.
“I contributed story, structure and additional dialogue for this piece,” she said, “but it’s important to note that the songs themselves are historical, written by composers Eisler, Spoliansky, Hollaender and Weil, so I am not, technically, the librettist. However, building a story and play around preexisting songs presents its own challenges. It was of central importance to me that the Jewish/queer and other marginalized artists of the time were centred in our story.
“We were working with excellent (but unavailable!) collaborators in our composers and, together with director Alan Corbishley, music director and historian Roger Parton and choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, tried to honour their work and build a vital story around it.”
Cheyenne Friedenberg is also a member of the Jewish community.
Berlin: The Last Cabaret stars actors with a background in music and spoken theatre, rather than traditional opera singers, and each performer, according to the press release, “was involved in the creation of their on-stage characters and storylines.” The production features a live four-person band.
For more information on PuSh, visit pushfestival.ca.