Drama, serious business at Bonn′s opera gala to fight AIDS | Music | DW | 29.04.2018
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Drama, serious business at Bonn's opera gala to fight AIDS

Musical fireworks, young stars, glamour and tragic plots drew attention to a subject still not taken seriously enough at Bonn's opera gala for Germany's main AIDS foundation. This year's event set a record for donations.

An impoverished playwright falls in love with a young woman who is ill with tuberculosis. The same illness plagues another woman, who finds desperate hope and true love toward the end of her life. To rescue her lover from prison, a young woman is forced into sex with a policeman. Rejecting a man's advances, another woman faces torture, misery and death. A woman seduces an invincible man to learn the secret to his strength. A love potion consists only of cheap wine but works anyway. A man seeks death in a duel because he cannot bear to see his loved one marry another man. She loses her mind, calls for him, and both die.

All were operatic plots, and "nowhere is dying as beautiful as it is in opera," said Ranga Yogeshwar, a TV moderator in the field of science and host of the German AIDS foundation's seventh annual opera gala in Bonn on Saturday. At the beginning, Yogeshwar had promised the audience in the sold-out municipal theater that "lots of heads will roll."

Aude Extremo at the seventh gala for the AIDS foundation (C. Tilo)

Aude Extremo

It was a long yet perfectly executed evening by initiators Arndt and Helmut Andreas Hartwig. At the beginning, mezzo-soprano Aude Extremo had the task of opening the audience's hearts for what was to come — and solved it superbly with the aria "Cruda sorte" (Cruel Fate) from the opera "The Italian Girl in Algiers" by Gioachino Rossini. Twenty-one pieces of music and nearly four hours later came "O fortuna," from Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana." The singers of Bonn's theater chorus were positioned to the left and right of listeners in the auditorium, leaving them awash in spine-tingling sound.

The evening was a study in the different nuances of operatic singing, from the warm, melting timbre of the Turkish baritone Kartal Karagedik to the performances by two sopranos from Russia: Elena Bezgodkova delivered heartbreaking emotion and Kristina Mkhitaryan brilliance and soft and finely chiseled vocal lines that made time stand still. In contrast, the Italian mezzo Anna Bonitatibus' delivery is ripe and communicative. She doesn't sing loud — nor does she have to. Fully in command, she keeps the listener on the edge of his seat.

Anna Bonitatibus at the seventh gala for the AIDS foundation (C. Tilo)

Anna Bonitatibus

Her countryman Ivan Magri had three appearances and budgeted his energies so as to save the maximum decibel output for his final aria: "Che gelida manina" (What a Cold Little Hand) from Puccini's "La Boheme." The other Italian tenor of the evening, Alessandro Scotto di Luzio, doesn't seem to need that strategy. Along with glass-clear pitch and lovely timbre, he can belt out the fortissimi, yet suggest that there's more where that came from.

With the Ameriocan soprano Heather Engebretson, Scotto di Luzio delivered a delightful duet from Donizetti's "The Love Potion." Engebretson is petite in stature but mighty in voice. In "Glitter and Be Gay" from Leonard Bernstein's operetta "Candide," she flirted ostentatiously with the conductor and the first violinist, and that gag brought in the strongest applause of the evening. Engebretson also delivered breakneck coloraturas to the Beethoven Orchester Bonn's brisk tempos. "The singers bring along the arias that show them from their best side," said Dirk Kaftan, the orchestra's music director. "The program lacks an underlying theme — but lives by means of color and versatility."

Allessandro Scotto di Luzio at the seventh gala for the AIDS foundation (C. Tilo)

Allessandro Scotto di Luzio

'Still taboo'

In addition to the performances, it was an evening rich in information, including the central theme: Despite advances in medicine, AIDS is still not curable. Conveying that message worldwide is a task for DW, said Gerda Meuer, the broadcaster's program director. "On our various media platforms, we make an issue of the subject, which in some parts of the world is still taboo," she said. "Some countries don't want us to do that, but we make it part of our basic content."

Thirty-nine million people have died of AIDS and associated illnesses. Although the rate of new infections in Germany is comparatively low — roughly 3,000 cases a year — the foundation still has battles to fight on the information front, Elizabeth Pott, the foundation's chair, told DW. "The foundation works as an agent for people who are affected and disseminates scientific knowledge," she said. Referencing socially conservative tendencies in countries such as the United States, where monogamy and abstinence are often offered as the sole methods of preventing of the illness, she added that "our goal is not to spread an ideology." 

Heather Engebretson at the seventh gala for the AIDS foundation (C. Tilo)

Heather Engebretson

Gala initiator Helmut Andreas Hartwig announced a proud result of the combined efforts: In seven years of opera galas in Bonn, over €1 million euros ($1.2 million) has been raised, with Saturday's €230,000 setting a new single-evening record.

As media partner, DW transmitted the audio via livestream and reports on the TV programs "Euromaxx" and "Sarah's Music." The event can also be heard on the "Concert Hour" radio broadcasts and online for two weeks beginning May 5.

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