A serial murderer kills little girls in a city. Everyone is in panic. The criminal could be anyone. Where to find him? How to find him? Fritz Lang’s first film using sound in 1931 was a huge success and he considered it his best film. Now the Komische Oper Berlin has commissioned German composer Moritz Eggert to write an opera. The result is a 100-minute one-act opera with only for one adult protagonist – M, the murderer. The story line has been kept, with Barrie Kosky and Ulrich Lenz keeping very close to the original libretto, enhanced by poems by Walter Mehring and traditional children’s songs. In fact, this is Kosky’s first commissioned work as a librettist as well as stage director, set and lighting designer.

<i>M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder</i> © Monika Rittershaus
M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder
© Monika Rittershaus

Eggert and Kosky have conceived the story as if it is happening in the mind of the paedophile. He is driven to murder despite himself and only finds inner peace when committing the crime. But maybe it is all only a dream? The ending remains open, we never see a murder being committed.

For multiple prize winner Moritz Eggert, this is his eighth opera. His musical language for M is a mixed collage of live orchestra and electronic sounds. Using especially installed surround technology, he wants the audience to experience the music coming from everywhere – an effect that is not achieved for the sold-out audience. Complex melodic lines and jazz elements meet delicate Lieder and harsh synthesizer sounds from the 1980s, not to forget the famous musical quote from Edward Grieg’s Peer Gynt incidental music that Fritz Lang also used in his movie. Music director and conductor Ainārs Rubiķis controls the elements of this big band turned classical opera orchestra with confidence, turning the roar of a metropolis into an expressionistic sound painting, which surprisingly soon is relegated to loud background noise by the listener.

Scott Hendricks in <i>M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder</i> © Monika Rittershaus
Scott Hendricks in M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder
© Monika Rittershaus

Baritone Scott Hendricks plays M in a sweater, jeans and trainers. He looks and sounds harmless enough – his lyric baritone pleasant and musical. He is the proverbial boy next door. Only towards the end does he express anguish when he sings a tearful monologue. M is the only adult on stage, all other characters are children wearing adult-size paper mâché heads cleverly and individually crafted by Tobias Barthel and wearing adult-style costumes by Anne Kuhn, converting them all into artificial figures straight out of a comic book. Two singers – soprano Alma Sadé and tenor Tansel Skzeybek – as well as six actors and actresses in the orchestra pit give them voices. This disembodies and distances any potential emotional impact even further. Additionally, there is a very large, well prepared chorus by David Cavelius and a children’s chorus, mostly singing from offstage. This conglomerate of undefined voices effectively conveys the anonymous and terrified masses. These crimes could be happening anywhere, in any city, at any time.

Scott Hendricks in <i>M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder</i> © Monika Rittershaus
Scott Hendricks in M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder
© Monika Rittershaus

The real star in this show is the children’s chorus. Dagmar Fiebach perfects the innocent sound of their voices and its effect on the perverted mind of M and the audience. The girls and boys sing precisely, musically and clearly enjoy their stage play.

Barrie Kosky and his co-set designer Klaus Grünberg place the action on a stage within a stage where moving accordion-like walls transform from sordid tenement halls to police office corridors to emergency exits and in the end, even colourful screens which underline the impression of this story being just one long continuum in M’s mind.

Translating a masterpiece from one medium to another is never easy. Kosky and Eggert give it a good try without producing any sense of the hysteria, psychosis or suspense that were the hallmarks of the movie classic.

****1