Arts and Letters in Mainz

Tim’s niece Patricia Roach is an opera singer with the Staatstheater Mainz, Germany.  This spring, she has been performing the role of Amando in “Le Grand Macabre”, an absurdist opera by Gyorgy Ligeti. It was a great reason to go and visit.

We arrived in Mainz, via Frankfort, a simple 20-minute train ride from the airport. Trish met us at the train station, on her bike, coming straight from a rehearsal of Cosi Fan Tutti. She directed us onto a city bus to go to her apartment, and she followed behind on her bike.

Trisha’s apartment is a quiet oasis sitting tucked into trees and parkland. We were greeted by her partner Alex, a wonderful German man who proceeded to make us a delicious pasta with smoked salmon. Try out: Alex’s Pasta Mit Lachs-Tomaten-Sahne. It’s a fast and delicious meal. We launched comfortably into a discussion about EU politics, German guilt and pride, contemporary opera and support for the arts as we tucked into steaming bowls of pasta.

After a suitable period of digestion, Trish headed off for her makeup call at the theatre, and Tim and I headed into town to have a glass of wine before the show. With the lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s song “Anima Rising” stuck in my head (“Seventeen glasses, Rhine wine”) we began our adventure of tasting excellent dry Rieslings. Turns out the Germans know a thing or two about making great wine.

Staatstheater Mainz

“Le Grand Macabre” is opera as you have never seen it. The music is incredibly difficult, atonal, dissonant, jagged and surprising. The plot is non-existent, the characters broad and bizarre. The theatre has a web site with a great trailer and photos. http://www.staatstheater-mainz.com/index.php?id=1333

It was fabulous. We loved it. We also thought there were lots of funny parts, but the rest of the audience wasn’t laughing so we tried to hold in our hilarity. Was there something we were missing by not speaking the language? No, Trish assured us, Germans just don’t laugh in the theatre. Cultural differences.

We went out for a light bite after the show. It was great going out with Trish. Not only does she speak fluent German, but the waiters know her. As an opera singer, she is a recognized personality in the city. We ordered some local specialty cheeses: Spundekäse, which is a puffy cream cheese and quark mixture served with chopped onion, paprika and a soft salty fresh pretzel; and Handkäse mit Musik, a semi-soft cheese that you pour salad dressing over. The “Musik” part of the name is because it apparently makes you fart musically. Or at least so Trish told us, but she is an opera singer so perhaps everything is about music.

Mainz is a city of 200,000 that sits on the Rhine river. Two thousand years ago it was a Roman fort that formed part of the northern edge of the Roman Empire. Just outside of town they are excavating the largest Roman amphitheater north of the Alps. It was a theatre that could seat 10,000 people.  Clearly, the tradition of theatre runs strong here. Today, the state theatre hosts an orchestra, as well as full time opera, ballet, theatre and youth companies. This in a small city of 200,000.

Mainz has gone through numerous sieges and occupations throughout the last millennium, and has been alternately a part of Rome, France, Prussia, the Rhineland republic and of course the German Third Reich. The city has always tolerated a combined population of Christians and Jews and during the Second World War, the Bishop of Mainz created an organization to help Jews to escape.

I have written elsewhere in my blog about visiting cities that were devastated during World War 2. In our travels we’ve gone to Plymouth, Exeter, Cardiff, Liverpool, and of course London – cities that had to do massive rebuilding. Sixty years on, we are fascinated by the architectural and cultural choices that were made. This was our first experience of the destruction in Germany. 80% of Mainz was destroyed in the war. Small bits of the old town have been cherished and fit into new buildings. There are wide pedestrian walkways.

Tim & Trish in front of the Mainz memorial

A vast open square in the centre of town preserves a part of the original 1,000-year old Cathedral, combining it with a memorial to Mainz Jews who died in the war and the burning of Mainz on February 27, 1945.

A 16th century tower nestles into modern buildings.

A 16th century tower amongst the 20th century buildings

The tower is all that remains of the workshop where Mainz’s most famous inhabitant, Johannes Gutenberg, and his partner Johann Fust printed the first bible and changed the world.

Gutenberg is the man who credited with the creation of moveable type and has been called the most influential man of the second millenium. We made our pilgrimage to the Gutenberg museum.

In the heart of the museum, on display in a locked vault, is one of the 49 remaining 42-line Gutenberg bibles. The books are large, (over 1200 pages and about 20 inches tall), the type is justified into two columns of 42-lines each, the columns tidy and clearly legible. The ornamentation is hand drawn and the effect sublime. This 2-volume set (Old and New Testament) required 6,000 goat skins to produce. Such a manuscript would have taken a scribe at least 3 years to execute. Gutenberg was able to make 150 a year. The revolution began.

The museum has a vast room dedicated to incunabula (the books printed in the first 50 years of printing presses) and you can easily see the profound effect. Scientists, mathematicians, geographers, physicians, philosophers could all have their ideas and theories disseminated at lightening speed with the result that there was an explosion in all fields of study and research.  I have studied all of this for years, but somehow seeing it so graphically represented in the museum was quite profound.

The museum also had exhibits on binding, papermaking, Asian printing and a fabulous contemporary exhibit called “Moving Types”, examining type animation in the age of computers.

Outside the museum are sculpted cubes representing various innovations and epochs in the development of letters.

Outside the Gutenberg Museum

A city in the middle of a wine growing region, that reveres typography and letterform, arts and culture – what took us so long to get here?

Tim in Mainz

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