Berghaus, Ruth (1927–1996)

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Berghaus, Ruth (1927–1996)

German theater and opera director known throughout Europe for her innovative and often controversial productions. Born in Dresden, Germany, on July 2, 1927; died of cancer on January 25, 1996, in Berlin, Germany; married Paul Dessau (a composer), in 1954 (died 1979).

Ruth Berghaus, one of postwar Germany's most innovative stage directors, was born in Dresden on July 2, 1927. She began her career as a dancer, studying at the famous Palucca School in her native city from 1947 to 1950. During this time, she became a member of the Socialist Unity Party and chose to remain in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) at a time when many artists and intellectuals made the decision to flee to West Germany. Her theater career began in 1964, when she was chosen as a choreographer by the prestigious Berliner Ensemble, the internationally acclaimed theater group formed by Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel . The quality of her work resulted in her appointment as director (intendantin) of the Berliner Ensemble in 1971, a post she held until 1977.

In 1954, she had married Paul Dessau, a noted composer who was 30 years her senior, and Berghaus began directing his operas. In the 1960s, she had staged operas for East Berlin's Deutsche Staatsoper that astonished audience members who had grown accustomed to artistically unadventurous costumes and sets. Many of her opera productions displayed a strongly ideological character, emphasizing the Marxist concept of permanent class struggle. The most discussed Berghaus production from this period was Rossini's Barber of Seville, which remained in the repertory of the Deutsche Staatsoper for more than two decades. Berghaus' production began with a stage filled by an enormous female nude, and the character of Rosina made her first appearance peeping out of a nipple. In 1980, her fame brought a new challenge to Berghaus, when she began working at the Frankfurt Opera as one of a team of guest directors which included Alfred Kirchner, Christof Nel, and Hans Neuenfels.

Ruth Berghaus' presentations in Frankfurt were often as ideologically controversial as they were artistically stimulating. Her 1981 The Abduction from the Seraglio elicited a mixed reception, much of it an attempt to pin down ideological fine points. The physical and psychological confinement of the harem was represented by the empty, white box-like set, which at critical moments in the opera heaved and rolled. One of the points made by Berghaus in this production was the notion that women as well as men should enjoy freedom of choice in their personal lives. Among the most intellectually challenging and provocative of Berghaus' stagings were the music dramas of Richard Wagner. Presented in 1985–87, her Ring presented to audiences an astonishing sequence of images, breathtaking in their originality and as stimulating to some music- and theater-lovers as they were outrageously offensive and subversive to other, more conservative, devotees of the arts. Instead of Nibelungs, she presented grotesque mask-like objects. The undisputed objective of much of her Wagnerian staging was to debunk, demythologize and deconstruct the traditions that still clung to the ethos and legacy of Richard Wagner. The audacious images conjured up by Ruth Berghaus have been praised by many critics, who argue that they often strike home "at some deep subconscious level," and for those individuals willing to exercise their imaginations "the rewards can be great."

The gestures that Berghaus taught actors under her direction are equally innovative. The choreography of these gestures represented a conscious break with the last vestiges of naturalism still found in German and Austrian opera houses as late as the 1970s. Audience response was mixed, but more positive than might be expected. A highly original use of stage props was often made by Berghaus in her various mature theatrical and opera productions. In Wagner's Die Walküre, Fricka is represented by a chair, neatly symbolizing both authority and domesticity, but at the same time evoking the element of the absurd. Though often highly original, the ideas of Berghaus derived inspiration from well-established theatrical traditions including the work of Brecht and Samuel Beckett and the Theater of the Absurd. In her production of Wagner's Siegfried, the Wanderer and Alberich sat comically side by side clasping their knees like Beckett's pair of tramps waiting for Godot. The affinity of the Wanderer and Siegfried were brilliantly underlined by one mouthing the words of the other.

With the controversial and even troubling nature of her presentations, Ruth Berghaus was firmly established as a major innovative force in European theatrical life by the 1980s. She delighted some theatergoers, puzzled others, infuriated a small but vocal minority, and perhaps forced many to rethink some of their most cherished traditions. In a 1989 interview, she noted, "I don't think I can have a direct impact on daily life, but I want at least to give motivation." Berghaus was not afraid to put herself on the line for her productions. When Teresa Stratas fell ill on the opening night of Berghaus' production of Alban Berg's Lulu and could not sing the title role, Berghaus, at 60, acted the part herself while another soprano sang offstage. Referring to her life in a Germany shattered by Fascism (her home city of Dresden was destroyed in a notorious incendiary air raid in February 1945) and her choice to live on the "other" side of the Berlin Wall in the German Democratic Republic, Berghaus provided a key to understanding her life's work in a 1989 interview: "I consider wanting to forget a crime, because it encourages the spread of things that prevent our liberation as human beings. I, for one, would like to pass on the things that mark our way to the truth."


Bertisch, Klaus. Ruth Berghaus: Regie im Theater. Edited by Claudia Balk. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1990.

Buch, Günther. Namen und Daten wichtiger Personen der DDR. Berlin and Bonn: Verlag J.H.W. Dietz GmbH, 1979.

Millington, Barry. "The Ring according to Berghaus," in The Musical Times. Vol. 128, no. 1735. September 1987, pp. 491–492.

Neef, Sigrid. "Producers in the Spotlight: Ruth Berghaus," in Prisma. No. 1, 1989, pp. 16–21.

——. Das Theater der Ruth Berghaus. Berlin and Frankfurt am Main: Henschelverlag/ S. Fischer Verlag, 1989.

"Ruth Berghaus" (obit), in The Times. February 6, 1996, p. 21.

"Ruth Berghaus und Heiner Müller im Gespräch," in Sinn und Form: Beiträge zur Literatur. Vol. 41, no. 1. January–February 1989, pp. 114–131.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Berghaus, Ruth (1927–1996)

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