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 title is John Henry Nijenhuis, did in order a part of an interactive musical set up that despatched a planet spiraling via a computer-animated universe utilizing motion-sensor know-how.
As he gracefully waved his arms, a fragile celestial choreography emerged. Earth hurtled via a galaxy that expanded and shrank at his command. His gestures additionally managed the cosmic soundscape, adjusting the pitch and quantity of a “space choir” that harmonized to a Bach prelude enjoying from a MIDI sequencer.
“Quarantine,” which streamed on the Volksbühne’s web site throughout 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 first six months of Covid were a blessing because I could just hole up in my apartment and conceive,” the 56-year-old Canadian stated. His interactive installations fuse his ardour for music along with his curiosity in laptop programming, a lifelong pursuit since his research in the 1980s at The University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
On a stormy spring night, I met Mr. Nijenhuis at the again entrance of the shuttered Volksbühne. Wearing a chic brown herringbone overcoat, he ushered me via a labyrinth of backstage stairways to the theater’s Red Salon, a nightclub-like venue that has been off limits since the 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 at the prime; his shoulder-length grey hair was pulled tightly again in a excessive ponytail.
Seeing him so snug and at house in the empty theater ought to hardly have come as a shock. Few folks at the Volksbühne have been right here longer than he has.
The closed Volksbühne theater in Berlin, the place Mr. Nijenhuis has been music director, composer and an occasional actor since the late-’90s.Credit…Lena Mucha for The New York Times
For a minimum of a decade after the Cold War ended, the Volksbühne was arguably the most radical and artistically daring theater in Europe. As music director, composer and occasional actor at the playhouse since 1997, Mr. Nijenhuis has contributed to Berlin’s inventive flowering whereas dwelling via dynamic modifications which have redefined the metropolis — and never for the higher, in his opinion.
He savors his reminiscences of post-Cold War 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 at the theater. “We had a job to explain socialism to the encroaching West in Berlin,” he stated.
“At the Volksbühne, you could always smell if the director wanted to change the world,” he added. “And if they didn’t want to change the world, you’d say to yourself, ‘you might as well be in the West End.’”
The theater “was a bulwark against unthinking, invasive forms of capitalism,” he stated.
To his remorse, that environment evaporated over the years. “Nowadays, the reputation of Berlin is as a party place,” he stated.
Nevertheless, few, if any, different North Americans have so decisively left their mark on Berlin’s cultural scene in the heady years that adopted reunification. Mr. Nijenhuis has labored on greater than 50 productions in his practically 25 years at the Volksbühne.
“John is a mastermind of music,” stated the director David Marton, who has labored with Mr. Nijenhuis since an acclaimed chamber model of “Wozzeck” in 2007. In an e-mail, he advised that Mr. Nijenhuis is “perhaps not recognized enough because he works mainly in the theater and ‘theater music’ doesn’t get much credit.”
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 school, he spent a decade in Toronto, growing a method of piano he described as “two-handed mash-ups of, for instance, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ with ‘Putting on the Ritz,’ or Ravel’s “Boléro” with ‘Take Five.’”
But 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, in the former East, didn’t have a piano, so he had to make do with a lounge organ. The curious expertise gave rise to his nickname, which is a tongue-in-cheek homage to a ’60s lounge organist, Sir Julian.
The Volksbühne theater as soon as “was a bulwark against unthinking, invasive forms of capitalism,” Mr. Nijenhuis stated.Credit…Lena Mucha for The New York Times
Although his competition look didn’t go to plan, Mr. Nijenhuis quickly started working at the close by Prater, a smaller venue run by the Volksbühne. His all-around musical profile, his data of Kurt Weill and Prokofiev, but additionally Fats Waller and pop and rock, made him sought-after in the culturally omnivorous and experimental milieu of ’90s Berlin.
“You could just about walk out the door and find yourself at a happening,” he stated of the second. “There were many of those ruined houses, bomb-wrecked houses that were 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 house, the Volksbühne grew to become his new inventive household.
Back then, the theater was firmly underneath 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 lengthy, demanding evenings that had been designed to shock theatergoers out of complacency.
But as the metropolis steadily developed into the nationwide capital and headquarters to lots of Germany’s greatest companies, the milieu inevitably shifted.
By the early 2000s, the Volksbühne was fighting its ideological focus, and as its productions grew to become more and more self-referential its viewers started to drift away. And whereas the actors and administrators had been hurling Marxist provocations into the viewers, the metropolis was rapidly succumbing to the capitalist forces their theater was meant to defend in opposition to.
“I was ensconced in a magnificent family,” Mr. Nijenhuis stated. “We were all on the same page. I had a job to do, there were fiercely creative people and I lost track a little bit of what was outside this building.”
He added: “It was very easy to fall into a peaceful slumber and wake up when the city was gone.”
Empty hallways of the Volksbühne.Credit…Lena Mucha for The New York Times
While Berlin continues to get pleasure from a freewheeling repute, Mr. Nijenhuis believes the metropolis has misplaced a lot of its inventive soul. “The change has been from an adventuresome, very daring town with adventuresome and daring artworks into an irretrievably bourgeois pleasure palace,” he stated.
As Berlin settled down, so did Mr. Nijenhuis. In 2015, he purchased an residence in Prenzlauer Bergand married the American poet Donna Stonecipher.
Increasingly, Mr. Nijenhuis has discovered inventive success away from conventional productions, via 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 films and accompanied in reside performances.
In one current look, 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 certainly one of solely two ensemble members at the Volksbühne with tenure (it’s uncommon for performers in Berlin to keep at the identical theater for the qualifying 15 years and was rarer underneath Mr. Castorf, who had a penchant for firing folks). Nevertheless, the current period of managerial and inventive upheavals at the theater has been making an attempt; by his personal admission, he was “put in 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 abilities and eclectic tastes are given free rein. The impressed musical choices ranged from Richard Strauss to Tom Lehrer.
“Had I stayed in Toronto,” Mr. Nijenhuis leaned in to inform me. “I would have probably become a bus driver.”