HUMBOLDT! The musical
The life of Alexander von Humboldt has inspired artists time and again. One particularly successful case in point is a biographical musical about the scientist. Ten years after its premiere, it has returned to a Berlin stage to mark Humboldt's birthday.
"1000 questions occur to me every day: how long do you dig to get to the earth's core and where do you extract tin? Where do the lemurs live? What do they feed on? And why do leaves suffer so terribly from lice?"
In the Märkisches Viertel district of Berlin you get a lot of different answers when you ask people about Humboldt. "Good customer service, the vacuum cleaner still works like new." Or "my daughter's favourite band"? Still, most of those surveyed have heard of "Humboldthain", a Berlin park. Other than that, however, ignorance largely reigns when it comes to the famous name. Was the man a ship builder or head physician? Hard to say. Sounds somehow familiar though.
This staged "What do you know about Humboldt?" survey opens the musical, which was written and produced by composer Thomas Zaufke and librettist Ulrich Michael Heissig for the Reinickendorf school of music. It is a beautiful realisation of what is known today as infotainment, something Alexander himself was brilliant at – communicating knowledge in an entertaining way.
"On the one hand, we want to present the committed humanist and enthusiastic advocate of the ideals of the French Revolution, the Forty-Eighter," director Heissig says of his motivation for the project. "And, on the other hand, the inquisitive scientist and explorer," the "last generalist, who tried to understand 'what holds the world together in its inmost folds'."
The play was created ten years ago to mark the Berlin Science Year and has been performed each year since, sensitively updated every now and again. The production's tenth anniversary now coincided with Alexander von Humboldt's 250th birthday, prompting the Reinickendorf music school to present HUMBOLDT! once again in the Fontane-Haus in the Märkisches Viertel. The venue is not far from Schloss Tegel, where the Humboldt brothers grew up – and where Heissig and Zaufke met for coffee with Wilhelm's great-great-great-grandson, the late lawyer Ulrich von Heinz, to get inspiration for their musical.
"And the journey began, in a different way, no car, no train, no jetlag after the flight, no satnav, GPS, no holiday traffic jams and stress, and we scratch our heads: how did they do this in eighteen hundred?"
With a large music school ensemble consisting of soloists, the junior dance company, the "kleine Tanzmäuse" group for the youngest dancers and a children's choir, HUMBOLDT! describes the biographical stations of a quest leading from Tegel to Paris, South America and Russia. When it came to the music, Thomas Zaufke was faced with the same question as when he was writing his earlier musicals about Che Guevara and the Brontë sisters: "Should I write in the style of the time?" He chose not to.
Occasionally, such as when the mother of the Humboldt brothers sings, the composer does sound a courtly harpsichord. But the great "Curare" song, for example – the scene depicting Humboldt among the indigenous people in the Andes – is a homage to Yma Sumac, the Peruvian singer who became famous in the 1950s with her astonishing five-octave voice. And the foot-tapping opening number ("This is a musical and not a science report...") is pure Broadway.
"A motley mix of different styles" is how Zaufke himself describes HUMBOLDT! – as eclectic as the personality of the protagonist.
"I want to delve into the secrets of the earth and see all the constellations, find, study and understand every animal and every plant."
The librettist Ulrich Heissig wanted to pique people's curiosity about Alexander von Humboldt's life – the audience as well as the young participants. He threw himself into the literature on Humboldt. You can see this in scenes such as the curare report, brought to life as a gorgeously costumed stage tableau. Humboldt witnessed the "Fiesta de la Juvias", the festival of the fruit that produces this poison, in the small Bolivian town of Esmeralda. The scientist and his companion Aimé Bonpland not only met the local chemist here – they also sampled small doses of the substance. "Pleasantly bitter", Humboldt noted.
Other biographical details are hinted at more subtly. Like Humboldt's presumed homosexuality for instance, whether practised or not, which his brother Wilhelm described somewhat disparagingly as a predilection for "acquaintances of the male persuasion".
Heissig's knowledge is sometimes reflected in just a single line of a song. Such as regarding Humboldt's occasionally bizarre eagerness to experiment. In Jena in 1794 (in the presence of Goethe and Schiller), Alexander conducted his infamous scientific experiment in which he tried to make dead tissue twitch using electricity. Apparently using a common toad from Thuringia as his object.
So in the HUMBOLDT! musical's "Brother Dear Duet", the scientist sings: "The toad's leg contraction with electricity was a success!"
You never stop learning about Humboldt...
"Who needs the oceans when you've seen the Havel? Waidmannslust and Jungfernheide – is anywhere else in the world as beautiful as here?"
If we needed any more proof that the man from Tegel has the makings of a hero of the stage – Alexander Superstar! – this musical provides it. And it's not the only one of its kind. On the other side of the world, the "Colegio Peruano Aléman Alexander von Humboldt", a German school in Lima, is preparing the musical "Todo un sueño" (All a Dream) in the anniversary year, tracing Humboldt und Bonpland's South American trip.
No one has refuted as convincingly as Alexander von Humboldt the lines by Goethe that Thomas Zaufke and Ulrich Heissig also paraphrase in their "Reinickendorf Anthem": "Why roam distant lands when happiness is so close at hand?"
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