BERLIN — Not way back, Sir Henry stood on the primary stage of the Volksbühne theater in what was as soon as East Berlin and carried out the cosmos.
In “Quarantine, For Solo Human,” Sir Henry, whose given identify is John Henry Nijenhuis, did in order a part of an interactive musical set up that despatched a planet spiraling by a computer-animated universe utilizing motion-sensor expertise.
As he gracefully waved his arms, a fragile celestial choreography emerged. Earth hurtled by a galaxy that expanded and shrank at his command. His gestures additionally managed the cosmic soundscape, adjusting the pitch and quantity of a “area choir” that harmonized to a Bach prelude enjoying from a MIDI sequencer.
“Quarantine,” which streamed on the Volksbühne’s website through the pandemic-related summer season lockdown, was the musician’s first solo work on the primary stage of the theater the place he has labored as music director for practically 1 / 4 century.
“The primary six months of Covid had been a blessing as a result of I may simply gap up in my residence and conceive,” the 56-year-old Canadian mentioned. His interactive installations fuse his ardour for music together with his curiosity in pc programming, a lifelong pursuit since his research within the Nineteen Eighties at The College of King’s School in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
On a stormy spring night, I met Mr. Nijenhuis on the again entrance of the shuttered Volksbühne. Carrying a chic brown herringbone overcoat, he ushered me by a labyrinth of backstage stairways to the theater’s Pink Salon, a nightclub-like venue that has been off limits for the reason that pandemic started.
Balancing himself precariously on a stool, he crammed two glasses with water from the sink of the long-disused bar. He wore a black gown shirt unbuttoned on the high; his shoulder-length grey hair was pulled tightly again in a excessive ponytail.
Seeing him so comfy and at residence within the empty theater ought to hardly have come as a shock. Few folks on the Volksbühne have been right here longer than he has.
For no less than a decade after the Chilly Battle ended, the Volksbühne was arguably essentially the most radical and artistically daring theater in Europe. As music director, composer and occasional actor on the playhouse since 1997, Mr. Nijenhuis has contributed to Berlin’s inventive flowering whereas dwelling by dynamic adjustments which have redefined town — and never for the higher, in his opinion.
He savors his recollections of post-Chilly Battle Berlin, a wild, bohemian outpost of inventive experimentation spiced with a vibrant conflict between East and West.
Mr. Nijenhuis unabashedly embraced the East German revolutionary spirit on the theater. “We had a job to clarify socialism to the encroaching West in Berlin,” he mentioned.
“On the Volksbühne, you can all the time odor if the director wished to vary the world,” he added. “And in the event that they didn’t need to change the world, you’d say to your self, ‘you may as properly be within the West Finish.’”
The theater “was a bulwark in opposition to unthinking, invasive types of capitalism,” he mentioned.
To his remorse, that ambiance evaporated through the years. “These days, the fame of Berlin is as a celebration place,” he mentioned.
However, few, if any, different North People have so decisively left their mark on Berlin’s cultural scene within the heady years that adopted reunification. Mr. Nijenhuis has labored on greater than 50 productions in his practically 25 years on the Volksbühne.
“John is a mastermind of music,” mentioned the director David Marton, who has labored with Mr. Nijenhuis since an acclaimed chamber model of “Wozzeck” in 2007. In an e mail, he recommended that Mr. Nijenhuis is “maybe not acknowledged sufficient as a result of he works primarily within the theater and ‘theater music’ doesn’t get a lot credit score.”
Mr. Nijenhuis was born in 1964 in Newmarket, Ontario, to Dutch dad and mom and grew up in Montreal and Halifax, Nova Scotia, the place his father labored for British Airways. After faculty, he spent a decade in Toronto, creating a mode of piano he described as “two-handed mash-ups of, for example, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ with ‘Placing on the Ritz,’ or Ravel’s “Boléro” with ‘Take 5.’”
However skilled alternatives for musicians in Toronto had been restricted.
In 1996, he was invited to carry out at an arts competition in Berlin. The venue in Prenzlauer Berg, within the former East, didn’t have a piano, so he needed to make do with a front room organ. The curious expertise gave rise to his nickname, which is a tongue-in-cheek homage to a ’60s lounge organist, Sir Julian.
Though his competition look didn’t go to plan, Mr. Nijenhuis quickly started working on the close by Prater, a smaller venue run by the Volksbühne. His all-around musical profile, his information of Kurt Weill and Prokofiev, but additionally Fat Waller and pop and rock, made him sought-after within the culturally omnivorous and experimental milieu of ’90s Berlin.
“You may nearly stroll out the door and end up at a taking place,” he mentioned of the second. “There have been lots of these ruined homes, bomb-wrecked homes that had been housing experimental music goings-on.”
That summer season he traded the skyscrapers of Toronto for the coal-heated tenements of Prenzlauer Berg. If Berlin supplied him a brand new residence, the Volksbühne turned his new artistic household.
Again then, the theater was firmly below the course of Frank Castorf, a provocateur who served as inventive director from 1992 till 2017. Mr. Castorf had a passion for making mincemeat out of the classics in long, demanding evenings that had been designed to shock theatergoers out of complacency.
However as town steadily advanced into the nationwide capital and headquarters to lots of Germany’s greatest firms, the milieu inevitably shifted.
By the early 2000s, the Volksbühne was combating its ideological focus, and as its productions turned more and more self-referential its viewers started to float away. And whereas the actors and administrators had been hurling Marxist provocations into the viewers, town was shortly succumbing to the capitalist forces their theater was meant to defend in opposition to.
“I used to be ensconced in a powerful household,” Mr. Nijenhuis mentioned. “We had been all on the identical web page. I had a job to do, there have been fiercely artistic folks and I misplaced monitor a bit of little bit of what was exterior this constructing.”
He added: “It was very straightforward to fall right into a peaceable slumber and get up when town was gone.”
Whereas Berlin continues to get pleasure from a freewheeling fame, Mr. Nijenhuis believes town has misplaced a lot of its artistic soul. “The change has been from an adventuresome, very daring city with adventuresome and daring artworks into an irretrievably bourgeois pleasure palace,” he mentioned.
As Berlin settled down, so did Mr. Nijenhuis. In 2015, he purchased an residence in Prenzlauer Bergand married the American poet Donna Stonecipher.
More and more, Mr. Nijenhuis has discovered artistic success away from conventional productions, by programming and performing interactive musical installations like “Quarantine.” For the previous 15 years, he has additionally collaborated with the German creator and filmmaker Alexander Kluge, for whom he has scored motion pictures and accompanied in dwell performances.
In a single recent appearance, he tinkers round on a grand piano singing arias by Monteverdi and Purcell as Mr. Kluge, a towering determine in German tradition, and the American poet and novelist Ben Lerner learn their works.
Mr. Nijenhuis is one among solely two ensemble members on the Volksbühne with tenure (it’s uncommon for performers in Berlin to remain on the identical theater for the qualifying 15 years and was rarer below Mr. Castorf, who had a penchant for firing folks). However, the latest period of managerial and artistic upheavals on the theater has been attempting; by his personal admission, he was “put within the broom closet” for 2 years by a creative director who didn’t worth his contributions.
Mr. Nijenhuis’s most up-to-date look onstage, in a manufacturing of “The Oresteia” in October, confirmed what can occur when his skills and eclectic tastes are given free rein. The impressed musical alternatives ranged from Richard Strauss to Tom Lehrer.
“Had I stayed in Toronto,” Mr. Nijenhuis leaned in to inform me. “I’d have in all probability change into a bus driver.”