Frühlingsstürme or Spring Storms in English is the first operetta written by Czech composer Jaromír Weinberger, which premiered in Berlin in 1933 and featured a cast of stars from the stage and screen.
The story is set during the 1904-05 war between Russia and Japan, with the action taking place in Manchuria. ‘Spring Storms’ is the password that Japanese Major Ito uses to pass the Russian frontline.
“Frühlingsstürme is a story about exiles and militaries operating in an occupied country, and spies in a foreign land,” says set designer Klaus Grünberg who designed the sets for this 2020 Barrie Kosky production at Komische Oper Berlin. In this story, “No one is ever at home”.
For Grünberg, Manchuria signifies a faraway escape, a place of dreams and exotic scents; what people longed for in the 1930’s, when Europe lived through totalitarian regimes. “People thought of breaking free and questioned themselves about where they belonged,” says Grünberg.
The music of Frühlingsstürme connects genres from Lehár’s operetta to jazz, tango and sounds of the Far East, and has a fascinating story itself.
After the composer left Nazi Germany, besides a few Czechoslovakian performances in the 1940s, the operetta was never performed again. The full score got lost, but a piano reduction from 1933 survived. The Komische Oper commissioned composer Norbert Biermann with reconstruction and arrangement of the music, which he undertook starting from the piano edition and a 1933 recording of some numbers.
“Maybe the original score is still laying forgotten in a box in some attic,” observes Klaus Grünberg. Based on this idea, he and co-designer Anne Kuhn came up with the concept of an entire show stored for decades in a box, now being opened at the Komische Oper in Berlin.
Grünberg wanted the performance to start and end with a lonely box revolving very slowly on a bare stage, an image evoking “packing, transit, exile, and forgotten treasures.”
“I invented a system that allows this box to open and re-open with a new scene in it every time,” says Grünberg. The central panel is fixed on the revolving stage, while the side walls can fold all the way in both directions, turning the box inside-out again and again. The scene is changed secretly through a small opening in the stage’s fake back wall, and dark-costumed extras manually move the panels.
“It was a tough technical challenge for the theatre because we wanted the panels to be no more than 15cm thick, moving magically almost by themselves”, he says.
Visually the images are conceived as flashes of memory or dream fragments and use few evocative elements: “a table with a pendant lamp, some chairs and a few Chinese lanterns should be enough to outline the Russian general’s briefing. With the right lighting, lots of red lanterns attached to the walls and some red stools, the stage is transformed into the ballroom. The revolving door and two giant potted plants make for a hotel lobby in Italy.”
The box walls and the scenic elements make a coherent overall picture. “The carpenters and painters did a great job realizing the wooden surfaces,” says the designer. “They allowed for a Manchurian feel without imitating or displaying Asian folklore. At the same time, they could represent just a plain and simple wooden transport box ready for shipping.”
“This locked, lonely box,” Grünberg concludes, “always reminds me of how many treasures were destroyed by the Nazis and how few of them we have had the chance to rediscover”.