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Work of the Week – Werner Egk: Columbus

Questions about the guilt and responsibility of a character who changed the course of the world: a new production of Werner Egk's Columbus will premiere at the Bonn Theatre on 16 June 2024. Hermes Helfricht conducts the production by Jakob Peters-Messer. The Bonn Theatre is thus continuing its FOKUS'33 series, which won the OPER! Award 2023 was honoured. The project is funded by the Ministry of Culture and Science of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Like many composers of his generation, Egk experimented with a new medium for his opera: Columbus was originally a radio opera. It was commissioned by Bayerischer Rundfunk in 1932. In it, Egk depicts the glamorous rise and deep fall of Christopher Columbus from his hopeful departure for the ‘New World’ to his death in bitterness, poverty and humiliation. Egk avoids any glorification of the title hero. Instead, the subtitle of the opera ‘Report and Portrait’ refers to a dramaturgical principle that Egk describes with the term ‘documented authenticity’. 

Columbus by Werner Egk: Hell in Paradise

Quotes from historical documents and the choir's distanced commentary emphasise both the ambivalence of the title character and the questionable outcome of their efforts: The paradise discovered by Columbus turned into the hell of colonial exploitation and occupation within a few years. 

Egk uses two narrators to controversially portray the stages of the title character. The choir, clearly anticised, is both the protagonist and the commentator. In the first instance, the title character is granted the operatic gesture: When Columbus catches sight of Mexican gold among the Indians, he sings the only aria in the play. At the council, before his departure, in the duet with Queen Isabella and finally in the death song, he no longer holds back the emotions that are otherwise suppressed in the play.

Man has not been forgotten by God. He has known how to make a nuisance of himself with the noise of weapons. (from the libretto)

Five days before the premiere, the Bonn Theatre invites you to an open rehearsal on 11 June 2024 for a first insight into the production of Columbus. There are also numerous appointments around the performances where the team will be available for personal discussions. The play can be seen on stage until 04.07. 


Further Reading:

Werner Egk: Composer Profile

Columbus: Work Details and Online Score

Website Theater Bonn 


photo: Claudio Valdes


Head of Promotion | Concert Opera Media Division

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