Front page of the winning concept proposal for the Independent Opera Director Fellowship. Design Jemima Robinson and Max Hoehn

26 August 2015

“What would you do if a pair of suspicious-looking strangers enter your home”

What would you do if a pair of suspicious-looking strangers enter your home uninvited and then ask for shelter? Would you throw them out? Call the police? Would you try to be diplomatic and avoid a physical confrontation? These are the challenges put before an audience in Biedermann and the Arsonists. The stable domestic world of the Biedermanns, a respectable, prosperous couple, is destroyed because of their inability to combat the serious threat posed to their home and local community. Blind fear, social embarrassment, middle-class guilt and moral paralysis all combine to drive Herr Biedermann and his wife towards compromising with and ultimately submitting to this new power that has infiltrated their home. 

I have been working with designer Jemima Robinson to find a visual language that best dramatises this clash of worlds. We decided to create a two-tier set. In Šimon Voseček’s opera, the orchestra have a highly individual, demonic voice that disorientates and confounds the singers. The decision to place them in a hellish pit in full view of the audience makes them an active participant in the drama. Above them is the Biedermanns’ domestic paradise: clean, monotonous and white.

Interpretations of the text that lock the play into a fixed historical time frame (eg. the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe or the rise of the Nazis) distance the piece for a contemporary audience. Morality plays are timeless by their very nature. Frisch himself wrote to the director of the play’s British Premiere that an audience had to relate to the figure of Biedermann for the piece to work. Šimon has also emphasised the importance of universality in his conception of the piece today. In order to achieve this, the world of our production is recognisably modern, but not aggressively so. I chose to give the Biedermanns’ apartment a bland contemporary look that would be familiar to UK audiences and to dress Herr Biedermann as the archetypal British businessman. But a semi-absurdist Central European sensibility is also part of the work’s DNA. A hyper-naturalistic approach that updates the work exclusively to modern Britain would undermine this crucial ingredient. During this pre-production process the visual associations of the design have become more broadly European. The inclusion of angel wings for the sanctimonious firmen trio, the hellish basement and the tone of David Pountney’s English translation help add the necessary element of overt theatricality to break up the solidity and realism of the Biedermanns’ apartment. The piece is, after all, about the collapse of seemingly secure cultural assumptions and values. With the model essentially complete and costume designs almost ready, I hope our visualisation of the downfall of the Biedermann household will complement Šimon’s wonderfully vivid, amusing and unsettling music.

Max Hoehn, Director of Biedermann and the Arsonists
Recipient of the 2015 Independent Opera Director Fellowship