Thursday, 8 October 2009

A bad night at the opera

Except when they are selling cars, post-war Germans have generally played down their reputation for efficiency, not wanting to be associated with a characteristic to which the adjective "ruthless" has sometimes been attached (in the case of the Nazis, inappropriately: ruthless, yes, but also outstandingly incompetent). Nowadays, the Germans are known to be efficient and generally nice with it, but like to exhibit occasional failings so as to avoid the stigma of unlovable perfection.

Peter Ustinov saw this diffidence manifested when he was directing an opera at the Hamburg Opera House, then the most technically advanced opera house in the world. There, whole sets wait at an enormous structure beside the wings and slide into place at the touch of a button. The technicians were quite incredibly efficient and yet there was one man who was totally hopeless. With him, everything went wrong. He dropped a hammer from the flies, narrowly missing the Stage Director's head. Whole sets fell down as he approached. The computerised lighting track went bananas and darkness fell over all.

Eventually Ustinov asked him to explain exactly who he was and why they kept him on. "Ah, you see, they keep me here to humanise themselves."

An admirable reply, but surely there must be more to it than that? Ustinov went on to ask, "But why do you in fact make all these incredible mistakes?"

"Ah, you see, it's a long family tradition."

"What ? You mean there are more of you, a whole family?"

"Oh yes, you should have seen my father. He was Stage Director of the Klagenfurt Opera and he made the most incredible mistakes, much worse than anything of mine. But, one day he achieved the impossible: he got it all right. The opera was William Tell, very much the thing for Klagenfurt of course, and watching from the stage manager's place in the wings he could see that all was perfect—all the sets in place, the chorus in position, the animals behaving, the prompters ready to prompt, the singers singing and the orchestra (audibly) playing."

"So what went wrong?"

"Oh, just one little thing—the curtain wouldn't go up."

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