There are so many layers that contribute to my conflicted feelings after seeing the premiere of Mario Schröder’s ballet to Bach’s Johannes Passion that I barely know where to begin. First, let me say it was truly beautiful. The combination of dance, choir and orchestra is a rare and valuable occasion. It was clear that it had been done with great love and care.
Yan Leiva and Anna Jo were absolutely in sync as the narrators, and they held our attention as they told us the story. The movements had enough of the familiar for us to recognise the signature of Mario Schröder, as well as giving us plenty of proof of development through the new.
As someone who grew up in a deeply religious Christian home in the States, I feel I know my Bible quite well. In our house, the King James version (1604-1611 Church of England) was the correct one. I remember when my grandmother got Good news for modern man (New Testament 1966, Old Testament 1976 US) and my dad found it appalling.
At this stage in my life, I try to see the Bible in an objective way.
I remember responding to a Facebook thread where a friend new to religion was trying to understand a point that he found contradictory scriptural passages on. I don’t remember what the point was now. That’s not really important. I grew up in a house where my dad was actually happy when the Seventh Day Adventists came to the door so that he could battle concepts by using the Bible.
The truth is that the Bible was written by 40 different people over a period of 1,500 years. It is not a firsthand account, but a recounting of verbal stories passed down from generation to generation. It has since been translated and retranslated at various points in time. No recounting or translation is completely removed from the writer or translator. They each saw through their eyes in a world with constantly evolving societal change. To me, the best way to understand it is to read it as a story and not take individual references as gospel.
Since Mario Schröder grew up in the GDR and is not religious, I expect he also sees it as a story and not a “how to” guide for our salvation. I must admit that on the night, I was surprised not to see a recognisable story of the end of the life of Jesus. What I got was a deconstruction of Christianity with references to Bach, Luther, GDR and our current time.
There was no Jesus.
This lack of protagonist really threw me off. Since the singers were telling a story about him and since they were in the pit, I couldn’t really make out the words they were singing. I would have liked subtitles, like at the opera. So, with no one to receive the action, I was a bit lost on what actions were taking place.
What we felt instead was the pain of the apostles. Isn’t that what the Bible is? The story as seen through the eyes of the apostles? After all, this is Bach’s version according to John. In it, Jesus is calm and collected. He knows his job, he was “born for it.” It’s everyone else who is freaking out.
I really like how in the ballet the apostles were all bare from the waist up and wore simple white pants. They were genderless and vulnerable. With the light shining down from the stage heavens, it was difficult to tell who was who. They were all of us and none of us. I particularly liked that the pair work was equal. The choreography with Lou Thabart and Urania Lobo Garcia was superb. It was unusually balanced with both showing their strengths.
In retrospect, maybe the subtitles would have distracted from that. I wonder if it would have been too much to deconstruct even further and remove the lead singers and only have the chorus. Would Bach have risen and shut the place down? He, himself, did several versions. After it was first performed in St. Nicholas Church, the clergy were so intimidated that they asked him to change it. Can you imagine having to give a sermon after that? No wonder they responded negatively.
Bach’s work was also not without competition.
At this time, the population of Leipzig was over 30,000 and each Sunday around 9,000 of them could be found in St. Thomas Church and St. Nicholas Church. They would come and go throughout the service. There was an irreverent atmosphere. In some ways it resembled a town square. Some would even use it as a thoroughfare to get to the square.
Though Bach never wrote an opera, this does feel like one. He tells a complex story full of drama. He personalises the characters and provokes emotion. He draws the congregation in with tension between daily turmoil (orchestra) and soothes them with the heavenly voices of the choir.
Bach spent his early life in Eisenach in a musical family. He was already playing the organ in church quite young. To me, it is an interesting paradox that he brought such musical complexity into the church. In fact he was constantly scolded for adding jazzy riffs. The people just wanted something simple they could easily follow. Nearly 200 years before, Martin Luther had changed the way music was used. Before, there had been complex arrangements sung by monks who were well rehearsed. Instead, he took popular tunes of the day and wrote new lyrics. “Why should the devil have all the good music?”
I ask myself if I was just expecting the usual suspects that I could easily follow: Jesus, Pilate, etc. Even a week later, I am asking questions and drawing on past experience. I am thinking. That is my definition of art. Schröder has definitely achieved that.
The use of superhero-like costumes for the Roman soldiers and the priests brings them into modern times and shows their solutions to society’s problems to be fictitious. They seem very out of place.
Probably for many Leipzig residents, the Propsteikirche directly across from City Hall also seems out of place. While I remain undecided on the architecture, almost everyone I talk to says it is ugly or doesn’t fit Leipzig. Personally, I don’t like that it is the same height as City Hall. I think that sends the wrong message and puts it in direct competition.
Which brings us to Martin Luther and what sparked his rebellion against Catholicism.
Luther’s father was part of a few who had left the feudal system to become successful business men. He was a copper smelter and wanted his son to move up the ladder and become a lawyer. After having completed his BA and his Masters in Erfurt, Martin Luther was ready to start his law studies when three of his friends died of the Plague. Already shaken by that, he was returning to school after a visit home and got caught in a storm. Lightning just missed him and he had to face his own mortality. Within two weeks, he abandoned his studies to become a monk at one of the most strict self-punishing monasteries in Germany. It was 1505.
Feeling that he still wasn’t good enough, he decided on a pilgrimage to Rome. What he found was a sharp contrast to the lifestyle of suffering he and the monks practised. He arrived there at the height of the Italian Renaissance. Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It was truly a breathtaking time to be in Rome.
But what affected him the most was the greed and flippant attitude of the priests. They mocked the sacrament. To get to the top, you needed to be a savvy businessman. You could literally buy your way to heaven. Rome was the headquarters of a Europe wide corporation and it was funded by small towns and villages like his in Germany. Needless to say he was appalled.
Upon his return, Luther sat down and wrote the 95 Theses against Indulgences, sparking the Reformation. In actuality, he had planed to right the wrongs he saw them committing, not start Protestantism. He wanted to cut out the middle man. Each and every person should have their own direct relationship with God.
Preaching, writing books and pamphlets, he amassed a large following. He was not the only one who saw the corruption. Likewise, he was in favour of bringing power to the people and taking it out of the hands of the Church. This was new. People would no longer be sheep. They would think for themselves. “To go against my conscience is neither right nor safe.”
Continued warnings and eventual ex-communication resulted. His actual life was in danger. He was whisked away to Wartburg Castle where the agents of the Pope couldn’t find him. This is where he translated the New Testament from Latin into German in 11 weeks. It was 1522.
Upon his return to Wittenberg, he found utter chaos. The masses had taken actions that they thought he would approve of. Monks were leaving their monasteries and nuns were leaving their convents. Priests were getting married. The movement had gone past religion and had now become political and social. Things like helping the poor and education were taken away from the Church and put in local hands.
Luther had not meant this to happen. He had pushed for change, not complete abandonment.
Growing up in that Christian home in the States, we often listened to Paul Harvey on the radio. In a 1996 broadcast called If I were the Devil, he includes this passage:
To the young I would whisper “The Bible is a myth.” I would convince them that “man created God,” instead of the other way around. I would confide that “what is bad is good and what is good is square.”
When I first saw that Mario Schröder was doing a piece based on the last days of Christ, I thought, “Why perpetuate the currently growing trend of Anti-Islam by saying the cultures can’t coincide?” I was disgusted seeing the Catholic Church going up in centre as pig heads were put on stakes at the site of a Mosque planned for Gohlis. I was seeing Christianity from the eyes of my upbringing. I hadn’t thought so much about it from the perspective of those against religion in general.
I had the great pleasure of knowing Gunther Müller. He was my ex’s uncle. My ex told stories of Gunther wearing a long coat with pockets full of books. He would read as he walked. An Atheist, he was the man in charge at the Luther museum. He had access to the original manuscripts and was the top authority on his life and work. He wore white gloves when reading those 500 year old documents. He protected history. Unfortunately, he did not protect himself and contracted cancer caused by spores found in them. He was just months shy of retirement. I knew he died without regret. He loved his work heart and soul. He was proof that we can all coexist and value one another for who they are.
Though Luther was not perfect (he had no respect for the uneducated and was anti-Semitic), he did change the course of history, as did Bach. I don’t know how either of them would feel about the current state of religion in Germany. I do know I’d like to see Mario Schröder’s Johannes Passion again, but this time I’d like to sit with Schröder, Bach, Luther, Müller and go for a chat after. I wonder if the last scene would have them join the collective tears of the world.
Thank you, Mario, for a piece that has kept me thinking and wanting more. Thank you, Leipzig Ballet, for your continued level of excellence.
Ballet by Mario Schröder | Music by Johann Sebastian Bach | Choreographic Premiere
Leipzig Ballet at Oper Leipzig
12 Nov, 22 Nov, 31 Mar, 8 June, 10 June