Opera tunes are good for the spirit - and public health | Music | DW | 22.05.2016
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Opera tunes are good for the spirit - and public health

Can good spirits and operatic arias effectively combat a worldwide scourge? The German AIDS Foundation's gala concerts show one way how that might be done.

"Don't forget to laugh" was Guido Westerwelle's appeal to the audience at last year's gala. On Saturday in Bonn, the fifth annual opera gala for the German AIDS Foundation was dedicated to the memory of the former foreign minister, who died of leukemia earlier this year.

Despite successes in combating the worldwide immune-deficiency disease, the activities of the AIDS Foundation are still necessary, said Norbert Lammert, president of Germany's parliament, classical music buff and patron of the event. "Notable progress and the foundation's dedicated work, however, give reason for hope that we can get the health crisis under control," he added.

Lasting over three hours, the event was not made for light consumption. Yet the intros by Bettina Böttinger, a TV personality at the public broadcaster WDR, achieved the nearly impossible, tantalizing the audience with summaries of complicated operatic plots and aria situations so concisely that they almost rivaled the Twitter format in their pithiness.

With 23 pieces, the concert marathon spewed many sparks from the operatic and song repertory. None of the nine soloists had a weak moment - from the lyrical tenor of Italian Roberto de Biasio and the tender soprano of American vocalist Robin Johannsen to the elegant coloratura lines of Russian Julia Novikova to the virile, dark baritone of Italian singer Davide Luciano to the Russian Marina Prudenskaya's soprano - powerful from the first note onward.

Chiara Skerath with Stefan Blunier in the background. Copyright: Deutsche AIDS-Stiftung/Patric Fouad

"My lips, they kiss so hot," Chiara Skerath sang in a passage from Franz Lehar's "Giuditta"

With gags and breakneck vocal improvisations, one soloist overshadowed the rest, however: German soprano Simone Kermes. Her vocal quality cannot exactly be described as "beautiful," but that is probably not her intent. "I'm not an opera singer," Kermes told DW.

No one doubts her star status though, and Kermes loves nothing more than experimenting with crossover projects and imaginative formats, earning her the status as the "free radical" of the scene.

Conductor Stefan Blunier granted Kermes the necessary breathing space for her improvised vocal lines. Donning a comical dress and absurd platform shoes to deliver an aria from Jacques Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann," the vocalist hilariously mimed a puppet on strings that twice runs out of steam. The audience in the Bonn Opera House went wild, and it was a moment ripe for television.

A serious backdrop

DW will broadcast excerpts from the gala in the program "Arts.21" on July 3 and 10. The greater part of the audio recording will be broadcast in "Concert Hour," available as audio on demand for two weeks beginning June 3 at dw.com/concerthour.

Deutsche Welle Director-General Peter Limbourg explained why the broadcaster promotes and transmits the gala to its overseas audience: "There may be a high level of awareness of the danger of HIV and AIDS in Germany, but in many parts of the world, that is still not so. The decadeslong threat posed by the illness justifies strong efforts in educating the public, and that's what we do."

But renewed preventive efforts are called for in Germany as well, said Ulrich Heide, managing director of the German AIDS Foundation: 3,200 new infections annually is a number that is still too high. Medical progress has made the chronic immune deficiency an increasingly manageable disease, but there's a downside, Heide said, as young people are now less aware of its danger. Helmut Andreas and Arndt Hartwig, the initiators of the gala, summed it up: "HIV and AIDS remain incurable."

Apart from supporting a new institute for HIV research at the university clinic in Essen, the foundation funds individual measures to alleviate the lot of people who are ailing, such as offering support if a patient needs to move to a new place or purchasing household equipment. But the German AIDS Foundation is also active abroad - and in this is probably unique among comparable private foundations worldwide. Those activities include supporting the DREAM Program in Mozambique, whose success rate in preventing the transmission of HIV from mother to child is now over 99 percent.

Julia Novikova. Copyright: Deutsche AIDS-Stiftung/Patric Fouad

Julia Novikova is no longer a starlet but a full-fledged star on the international opera scene

Yielding an interim sum of 194,500 euros ($218,000), this year's gala in Bonn broke a new record, co-initiator Helmut Andreas Hartwig said. With the round figure of 200,000 euros tantalizingly close, friendly volunteers passed through the crowd during the intermission with collection boxes.

About 80 percent of the German AIDS Foundation's financial volume goes directly toward charitable work, Heide said - but only about 1 percent of that comes from public funds. Is that a good thing? "Being government-funded would probably be a more comfortable situation for us," Heide said. "But as we are forced to raise funds through events like these, that carries our message to the public far more effectively than could ever be achieved by state-supported institutions."

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