Berlin's Rock-Era `Orfeo' Komische Oper Version of the Greek Myth Turns the Hero into a Rock Singer. WORLD OPERA

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THE Komische Oper, in what was until recently East Berlin, is probably known to anyone who has followed the performance history of opera in Europe since World War II.

Formerly one had to travel to Berlin to experience this company. Its first Western tour took it to London in the summer of 1989, and comprised three operas, including artistic director Harry Kupfer's much-discussed 1987 production of Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice" (or "Orpheus und Eurydike" as presented in German by the company).

Now the Komische Oper has traveled across the Atlantic with their version of "Orfeo," and settled into the Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) for a four-performance run that ends Sunday.

What established the company's reputation almost from the beginning was its fanatical attention to theatrical detail. Artistic director Walter Felsenstein, named head of the new company in 1947, was known to stress long rehearsals to arrive at a dramatic level that had little to do with the stand-and-pose style so standard in most opera houses around the world. Kupfer, only the third artistic director the company has had - he took over in 1981 - has continued the idea of opera as theater, and in this updated "Orfeo," the theater is a persistent image.

This BAM run marks Kupfer's staging debut in the United States. It is clearly long overdue. Active in European houses since 1972, he has developed the reputation of an uncompromising visionary who insists on staging only those operas he can make relevant to today. His work has been seen in many of the major German houses, including the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, and also in Vienna. (Just recently he demanded his name be removed from a production of Strauss's "Elektra" because he was not even offered the chance to rehearse a substationally new cast in his intricate staging.)

While in Berlin, I had a chance to ask Kupfer how the city's unification - and the need to support three major opera companies - will affect the Komische Oper. He noted that under the unified government, the subsidy remains basically the same as under the old East German government - i.e., just as small. "Now our fight is that the subsidies should be raised to the Western level." As for the Komische Oper joining the large family of unified Berlin theaters, there are big problems down the road. "We fight for the Komische Oper," Kupfer explains, "and we have only one problem, that our quality evening to evening on stage has to be so good that our theater is needed for Berlin and for Germany. That is the only problem we have!"

As for controversy, he clearly does not fear it; rather, he expects strong reactions and knows that if a production stays in peak form, he can get those reactions night after night. So when I asked how much this "Orfeo" has changed since 1987, he answered immediately, "Not one part we changed. …