Kaspar Hauser is an opera about a “feral child” who turned up on the streets of Nuremberg, Germany in 1833; its music, focus on a world-battered individual, melodrama, cynical stream, and terrific sensory overload take us right back to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill: think Threepenny Opera.
At his first appearance among the people of Nuremberg, Kaspar is wobbly legged because, according to his account which is represented in the opera’s stunningly choreographed beginning, he grew up in a dungeon. Awkward and with little speech–he’s grown to teen age without proper human contact–he seems to them like an idiot. We see him sitting autistic-like, repetitively rolling his little horse back and forth. Quickly, though, he achieves great fame as an oddity and object of pity. Much as in Truffaut’s film, The Wild Child, about a true feral child, a professor takes him in to study and teach, aided by a loving woman, the professor’s mother. Throughout, the opera conceives this wide-eyed beautiful boy abruptly thrown into the real world as an innocent, somewhat Christ-like, while enemies are out to get him for their nefarious reasons. The gullible crowd sways back and forth at the slightest suggest between adoring him and persecuting him, but he’s actually done in by upper class forces that want him out of the way (because he might really be a child of noble birth who was sent away to die in infancy, etc.)
The production, placed in something of a long narrow pit below the level of the audience, is magnificent. Chiaroscuro lighting creates a furtive Brechtian world of fickle fate. The actors, many of the Bats, the Flea’s wonderful young resident company, are beautifully costumed and choreographed, often caught strobe-like in moments of grotesque expressions, see photo below, like something out of Bosch’s Christ Mocked (follow link for photo). Behind it, in front, all around–and loud–is the percussive, mass sung, growing Weill beat. Only a few of the singers have operatic voices, but all sing well enough for the small theater, further baffled by placing the five members of the orchestra behind a curtain that spans the entire stage. One would have liked the chance to applaud the orchestra but they didn’t come from behind the curtain to take a bow.
Kaspar Hauser is about a victim, in personality as well as in fact, and the passivity of this central character is a fundamental dramatic weakness. Everything happens to him. The other characters are all also oddly lacking in volition. The professor who takes him in gets “tired”. The professor’s mother tries to protect Kaspar but not hard enough to achieve anything. His real mother sings sadly but with absolutely no thought of finding him. The competitive “bad” mother behind Kaspar’s childhood abduction uses somebody else to try to get the teen-age Kaspar out of the way. Her agent fails, and then seems unsure of what he wants to achieve about the boy. Here we really part from Brecht, and his passionately motivated, determined character creations.
Still and all, for its outstanding production values, and strong musical and theatrical heritage, this is quite a show. Kaspar Hauser plays at The Flea Theater in Tribeca, NYC, through March 28