Some personal words from Michael Lewin about the death of Harry Kupfer

So now he’s gone.

If I am completely honest, it was not really imaginable for me until the end. Yes – he was in a hospital for several weeks and his voice on the two final, short calls sounded like I had never heard it before – but the old optimism still shone through: “Come on when I feel a little better again.“

And now?

Harry Kupfer was never retired. On the contrary, he was full of plans to the end! He still wanted to do certain works; book projects were planned for this year and he wanted to oversee even a major revival in the fall.

Now his last wishes to do certain works will not be fulfilled, nor will be able to read the planned autobiography and the supplemented and revised new edition of his reflections on his work, and the revival will probably be directed by the assistant he has chosen.

The phone will remain silent. The familiar: “Hello, this is Harry talking” with the question that was usually inevitable: „What’s new boy?” – Never again.

What remains?

Above all, the memory of an incomparable artist for whom musical theater was a mission. Theater that inspired him, that could ignite his imagination, had to have music. No matter if opera, operetta or musical – he could do everything equally well because musical theater was simply the theater for him.

From an early age he was addicted to this profession and the decision to become a director came early, with therefore set him on his artistic path early.

His unstoppable rise through the theater landscape of the former GDR is well known: debut in Halle 1958 – then Stralsund, Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz), Weimar, Dresden, and then Berlin, where he became chief director of the Komische Oper in 1981.

I  was a teenager when I first saw a production of his in Graz (also Kupfers first work outside the GDR): Elektra and shortly afterwards Don Giovanni. The impression at the time was outrageous. (Harry was amazed at how many details I could remember years later that he had taken over from the Graz production for Don Giovanni at the Komische Oper in autumn 1987).

His legendary “Flying Dutchman” came to Bayreuth in 1978 while he was still in the GDR (Harry Kupfer was the opera director in Dresden at the time). By this time at the very latest, everyone really knew who and what Harry Kupfer was.

Our personal encounter took place a few years later, in the mid-1980s. A chance conversation on the side of an exhibition. Harry: “Can’t we continue our conversation? I’m done with the rehearsal tomorrow at 5:00?” He was so spontaneous and direct and so we spontaneously decided on a book project at the end of the evening. It was also the beginning of an uninterrupted collaboration that must now come to an end after 35 years, and to which I owe – purely personally – much more than can be written here.

As I said, I already knew many of his productions (especially from Dresden and Berlin) before we met, but from then on I naturally saw each one – often from the final rehearsals. For me, Harry Kupfer was and remains the prime example of an artist who, at the same time, was constantly developing and still remained absolutely true to his art.

There is no need to talk about his great work here, much less about his influence on the following generations and his importance in the history of the interpretation of opera. This has been sufficiently done elsewhere, and I am certain that many things will be looked at and evaluated again in the future, even if we will soon only be able to rely on recordings and documents.

Many will probably reevaluate his productions of later years. The mere fact that Harry Kupfer was still staging at 65, 70 and finally at over 80 years of age sparked deep distrust among both the dramaturge guild and some of the writing guild. It couldn’t be what couldn’t be! But Harry kept on working and the worst thing was: the audience cheered him more than ever in Vienna and Berlin, in Frankfurt and Zurich, in Milan, Munich, Tokyo and at the Salzburg Festival.

There was an understanding between Harry and his audience. What a feeling it must have been for him when he came out again in the Komische Oper last spring after the premiere of Poro!!

Harry Kupfer was an artist who has always stood above the respective trends and fashions of the day. Just as he could not be assigned to a particular school, he never really allowed it. For him, like for a few of his colleagues, Alfred Hrdlicka’s famous sentence (which, by the way, he very much agreed with!) was: “I can’t think of anything – I notice something !!” And what he noticed he had to bring to the stage. That was what had to be told, and his singers had to make believable in  their performance. He had a mission and that mission literally did not end until he was recalled on December 30th.

Stage Directing – that was really living for Harry Kupfer. And life – that was stage directing. Today I still have to smile secretly when I remember the summer of 1986 in Salzburg. Black mask. World premiere by Penderecki. After the dress rehearsal on August 12th in his Salzburg quarters. Harry was never a big celebrator of birthdays. A glass of red wine and something to smoke. That’s it. And then the unforgettable sentence: “If I’m still staging at 60, boy, you have to promise me that, you’ll take a brick and hit it over my head.” Literally. I think that was the only instruction in 35 years that I then silently ignored and at later birthdays – let’s say from the 75th – regularly caused a lot of laughter. But even then, this apercu reflected the fear of not being physically up to the task one day: “If I have to sit in a rehearsal, I will stop immediately.“ That was true until the end …

Now the end is irrevocable. A young generation of singers will only hear incredulously the stories of older colleagues what a “Kupfer Rehearsal” was.

Some things that would have been so important to him will no longer be told. Some things that he suddenly wanted to say are no longer to be published. And finally there was no way to tell him again personally what I felt throughout the whole time of our cooperation:

“Thank you Harry!”