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Kaupo Meiel: Heritage society, were you aware that life is a cabaret?

Kaupo Meiel.
Kaupo Meiel. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The Estonian heritage protection society (Eesti Muinsuskaitse Selts) has criticized a performance of the musical "Cabaret" by the Estonian National Opera (Rahvusooper) taking place on March 9 as an inappropriate event for that date, the 80th anniversary of the March bombing of Tallinn by the Soviet Union.

The Estonia Theater, home of the National Opera, itself was badly hit during the raid.

However, Kaupo Meiel writes, "Cabaret" (Estonian: Kabaree) in fact fits well with Estonia's past and its present.

"There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens /.../ a time to mourn and a time to dance." (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4 (NIV).

"Life is a Cabaret, old chum. Come to the Cabaret! " (Sally Bowles, in "Cabaret").

On Christmas Eve, when the mulgikapsas was stewing away on the stove, the pork roasting in the oven, there was just enough time to switch on the TV to Bob Fosse's 1972 movie "Cabaret," starring Liza Minnelli and Michael York.

This absolute classic of musical movies, and of all movies, based on the original by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Joe Masteroff, from a play by John Van Druten. The play in turn is derived from Christopher Isherwood's semi-autobiographical novel "Goodbye to Berlin."

The musical premiered back in 1966, and if all goes well, it should reach the Estonian National Opera on February 9 this year.

Watching Fosse's film for most likely the hundredth time – by the way, it differs somewhat in the detail from the Broadway production, but that's not so important – I come once again to realize how well it has stood the test of time.

Not only because of the great songs, the amazing lead actors and brilliant direction, but also very much because of the themes "Cabaret" speaks about, and how it does so.

The action centers on early 1930s Berlin, in the dying years of the Weimar Republic. The nazis are starting to raising their heads above the parapet more and more and are gaining in strength; democracy is evaporating.

In parallel with the happy-clappy dancing down at the Kit Kat Klub, those who are resisting the changes or who just happen to be of the wrong nationality, or appearance, or have the wrong orientation, are getting beaten up in dark alleyways.

Yes, the sparkling wine flows and energetic songs are heard at the Kit Kat Club, but they also exhibit a bittersweet taste, as people try to hold on to the belief that cabaret is eternal, whereas it is not.

["Cabaret" protagonist] Cliff Bradshaw summarizes things as follows: ""There was a cabaret, and there was a master of ceremonies ... and there was a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany—and it was the end of the world ..."

"Cabaret" deals with money, power, the relationship between those two things, the choices that an individual and a nation have to make, escapism, the loss of innocence, and also violence, which a beautiful song from a beautiful homeland tries to resuscitate.

It covers everything that we have to think about, and deal with too much and too often, in today's world as well.

This makes all the more amazing the Estonian heritage protection society's appeal to the Estonian National Opera's management board and supervisory board (link in Estonian) in which they requested – in fact practically demanded – the cancellation of the March 9 scheduled performance of "Cabaret," and the dimming of the lights in the auditorium.

The rationale: "On March 9, 1944, the Estonia Theater was destroyed, and people attending the performance tried to escape from the burning building."

"We thus find it offensive and inappropriate to perform in the theater the light-hearted musical 'Cabaret' in the theater on March 9, 2024."

Based on this one might get the strong impression that the Estonian heritage protection society is not familiar with "Cabaret," otherwise they wouldn't be referring to it as a happy-go-lucky musical, for one thing.

"Cabaret" is far from light entertainment. "Cabaret" is a cautionary, frightening and powerful piece of work which unfortunately fits very well both for March 9, and for the whole year of 2024. When I last watched "Cabaret," in December, I ended up being gloomier than usual for the Christmas holidays, as the musical spoke to me and to my era very directly, and very painfully.

Estonian history is full of such sad anniversaries, and we can't stop crying; it doesn't lead anywhere, it only shows our weakness.

For this reason alone the Estonia Theater's response to the society's appeal was extremely sympathetic in its approach.

"On March 9, 1944, the forces of darkness coerced the Estonia Theater to abandon a performance. On March 9, 2024, the Estonian National Opera will not yield to the forces of darkness, and the performance will go ahead."

The soft-spoken appeal of the heritage protection society to the incomprehensible, and with its certain degree of ignorance, one where emotions have clouded clear vision, would not especially merit special attention did it not have another theoretically unpleasant side effect, namely that it gives the impression of protectors of heritage being some sort of back-woods people, who wear blinkers.

However, this is not the case.

Heritage protection is needed, and it is likely that the official state Heritage Protection Board (Muinsuskaitseamet), which should not be confused with the heritage protection society referenced here, would, along with many other cultural heritage defenders, prefer that light and an effervescent aliveness illuminate the windows of historical buildings, instead of languishing in silence, and a (spiritual) darkness.

Anna-Karin Hirdwall, the director of "Cabaret," inquires on the National Opera's website as follows: "Have you ever let your wants and dreams pass you by out of fear of the consequences of pursuing them? In this piece I want to tell you about how people get affected by fear and how we become who we are."

"Do we live our lives imprisoned or free in truth? Can we enable personal and societal change in the future or do we hold back and cling to the old world in fear of renewal? I want to welcome the audience into a world populated by characters who believe, wish, love, dare, dream and hope – despite forces that want to limit, control, straighten and intimidate into fear and silence."

The heritage protection society might have pondered this concept, so that the public appeal would perhaps never have been written; the pointless spat would then not have arisen.

On March 9, you can reflect on our tragic past, both at the cemetery and at the National Opera House – these are not mutually exclusive places.

The past must be commemorated, and lessons drawn from it, and the musical "Cabaret" is one very powerful lesson here.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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