Two philosophers make war, not love, in an operamain
The facts of the affair are incontestable, the letters available for public scrutiny.
In 1924, a philosophy professor at the University of Marburg made love to the brightest student in his class. He was Martin Heidegger, 36 years old and married, on his way to becoming a force in his field. She was Hannah Arendt, 18, Jewish with mousy hair, probably a virgin. Heidegger abused his power and position to take advantage of a besotted student. By today’s terms, he was a sexual predator.
He went on to formulate his quasi-existential theory of Dasein (being there). In April 1933 he was made rector of the University of Freiburg, revealing himself as an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazi regime. Arendt had to leave Germany, finding refuge in 1941 after many wanderings in New York, where she taught philosophy at the New School and mingled with Manhattan’s intelligentsia.
Incomprehensibly, perhaps unforgivably, Arendt maintained an epistolary romance with the odious Heidegger throughout the Nazi years and beyond. In a 1953 diary entry, she describes Heidegger as a fox trying to lure prey into a trap in which he is already trapped. Was she a willing participant in his mind games? Or a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, where the kidnap victim falls in love with her captor? Either way, the affair is profoundly instructive as a case history in the present #Metoo hysteria, an academic anatomy of mental anguish and physical abuse.
The Israeli composer Ella Milch-Sheriff has turned it into a two-act drama at Regensburg Opera, fittingly indeed in a small town in Germany. The title, The Banality of Love, is a play on Arendt’s famous phrase ‘the banality of evil’, by which she (mistakenly) described Adolf Eichmann at his Holocaust trial.
From the opening scene, the story has little to do with love. Heidegger uses physical force and personal charisma to rip young Arendt away from the attentions of a besotted fellow-student and make her his mistress. Her intellectual development, harnessed to her erotic education, is yoked to Heidegger’s powerful mind. Without actual violence, Heidegger subjects her to varied forms of abuse and captivity.
Milch-Sheriff mitigates the harshness of their connection with sparkling wit. Heidegger, lecturing his class, accompanies himself on a mandolin like a medieval Minnesinger. Snatches of Wagner, Mahler and Bernstein afford a musical context to this cultural confrontation. The opening phrase of Deutschland Uber Alles mutates in a minor key into a morbid stain of spreading evil. The war of ideas is fought out by an excellent orchestra in a score of considerable sophistication.
Regensburg, a town of 100,000, has an elite singing ensemble. Its newest recruit, Sara Maria Saalmann, in her early twenties has a stage presence that belies her slight form. The eye is magnetised by her subtle movements, the ear by her serene handling of a complex phrase. This young soprano will go far.
Vera Semeniuk plays the older Arendt with more sympathy than the score allocates to the role; Angelo Pollak reveals no redeeming features in the younger Heidegger; Adam Kruzel as the older Heidegger appears as corrupted in body as he is in mind. The house was almost full for the performance I attended and the opera will remain in repertoire for the rest of the season, 12 performances in all.
At a time when ‘new’ opera is synonymous with the abstractions of Kaija Saariaho and George Benjamin, this pulsating, all-too-human drama contends with current and recent conflicts of mind, body, gender and nation. It’s one of those rare operas that has something pertinent to say about our present confusions.