In many operas the libretto is so weak as to be silly. It exists only as a vehicle for the music, and reasonable listeners probably don’t give a thought to the story after the performance ends. But “The Banality of Love,” a new opera written by two Israeli women that premiered in German in the Bavarian city of Regensburg, is different. It’s a real thought-provoker, both on historical subjects and universal questions.
The libretto needs no updating to make it “relevant.” At its heart is a true story, the romantic relationship between Hannah Arendt, a young, Jewish university student, and Martin Heidegger, her married and much older philosophy professor. It ended after a few years and Heidegger joined the Nazi party. Arendt, who became a renowned philosopher and journalist — among other things covering the Eichmann trial and coining the term associated with it, “the banality of evil” — maintained a friendship with Heidegger until his death. The concept of the banality of evil was perceived at the time as an understanding on Arendt’s part for Eichmann’s acts. The director of the opera, Itay Tiran, decided to put Arendt in a glass booth - from which she sings an aria about the banality of evil.
Ella Milch-Sheriff composed the opera based on the play of the same name by Savyon Liebrecht. "To me, Heidegger and Arendt are what is known as 'larger-than-life figures,'", says Milch-Sheriff.
"Two enigmas, each separately and the enigma of their relationship. Arendt disavowed Heidegger, but did not cut ties with him. They say that she kept his picture on her desk even in her old age. In the play, however, there are many more historical facts, including Arendt’s attitude to Israel.
“As I composed, I saw that in the opera I was writing, two indictments were emerging, which were not in the play: against Heidegger, against Hannah Arendt — that is the main indictment — but also against myself as an admirer of German culture."
‘She defended Eichmann to defend Heidegger’
Liebrecht wrote the play that the opera is based on already 18 years ago. The play, as opposed to the opera, relates more seriously to Heidegger's philosophy.
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“I think I understood why his philosophy was so attractive in its day,” Liebrecht says. “How it suited the 1920s. I was also interested in his Nazi connection; he really believed in Hitler. But no, I don’t think that the play, compared to the opera, is ‘less anti-Heidegger.’
“I met Heidegger’s son, who came to one of the performances of the play in Germany," Liebrecht continues, "The son was already about 90 years old. He came with his wife, his daughter and her husband. He traveled a few hours by train from Freiburg to Ulm where the play was being performed. In conversation with him he told me, among other things: ‘I am the real son,” implying that [Martin Heidegger’s] other son was the son of his mother, Elfride, certainly an anti-Semitic woman, and another man, during her marriage to Heidegger. There is a place in the play that mentions Elfride and her sons, and the audience during that performance knew that the son was in the theater and turned to look at him.”
What is your attitude toward Arendt?
“The young Arendt, my heart goes out to her. By the way, in terms of her intellectual contribution, she may have even helped Heidegger write his most famous book, “Being and Time,” which was written during the years of their affair.
“Toward the older Arendt — another attitude. In her book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” she lords it over us, the Israelis.” It should also be mentioned, Liebrecht continues, that the historian Barbara Tuchman said that Arendt “defended Eichmann to defend Heidegger.”
Liebrecht also said: “When Heidegger turned 80, his former students, including Arendt, were asked to write about him, and she wrote a text that exonerated him, explained that he had been seated in an ivory tower. It has to be read to be believed.”
Liebrecht added that to her, the opera “The Banality of Love” is also spectacular in terms of Itay Tiran’s direction. Two scenes, she says, are engraved on her heart. In one, young Heidegger changes, on a revolving stage, into the older Heidegger. Below the stage lies the Jewish student Raphael, Hannah Arendt’s friend, and both actors wear masks of dogs threatening to bite him. In the second scene rain falls — on the stage and on the audience — a rain of autumn leaves, but it turns out that these are not leaves but torn pieces of yellow Stars of David.
The prosecutor as a great inquisitor
The question of Heidegger’s importance as a philosopher is also fascinating. On the one hand he had enormous influence: reams of articles were written, among them by famed philosophers, in response to his ideas and interpretations of them. Arendt, an admiring, excelling student, called Heidegger “the secret king in the empire of thought.” On the other hand there were other philosophers, also renowned, who viewed his ideas as overblown drivel, intellectually misleading, ideas that ranged from unclear to meaningless, valueless texts that produced mountains of texts in their image.
Does Heidegger’s philosophy exist in the opera?
Milch-Sheriff: “Yes. In the first scene. I wrote a scene in which Heidegger is lecturing about his philosophy with very ironic music, sweet, even humorous. A serenade accompanied by a mandolin. The critics in Germany did not miss this. People in the audience laughed. Why a serenade? My connotation was on the one hand Don Giovanni the seducer, and on the other, Beckmesser’s aria in “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” an aria that Wagner composed intentionally as borderline kitsch.”
You mentioned the Eichmann trial before. In the opera, what is the role in the opera of Gideon Hausner, the prosecutor?
“It’s a small role but very dramatic. I present Hausner as ‘the opposite of the opposite,’ as an indictment of the Christian church. His appearance as a churchman, a great inquisitor, is accompanied by the huge sound of an organ.”
When she is asked what musical style she used, Milch-Sheriff says: “Contemporary musical language, but as usual with me, almost always tonal and with a rhythmic basis that is present all the time. I believe I told the Germans many things that I had to say to them, through the music, and that they also got it. Unusual from a musical point of view is the part where Heidegger reads his speech upon becoming university rector, a speech that really happened. I integrated the chorus into that speech, reading the names of authors whose books the Nazis burned and I used clusters, blocs of dissonant tones. That got under the skin of the audience in Regensburg. Israelis in the audience wept.”
How is it that the libretto, from the outset, was written in German? Why not for an Israeli audience and in Hebrew, first of all?
“I first pitched the idea to the Israeli Opera, that was four years ago. There was a meeting. They said they weren’t interested.”