Der Barbier von Bagdad (English)

Der Barbier von Bagdad (The Barber of Bagdad). A premiere that led to the resignation in 1858 of the intendant of the Weimar Opera, Franz Liszt. An opera that Fritz Wunderlich had in his repertoire. Enough here to arouse our curiosity. We’re talking about the Barber of Bagdad by Peter Cornelius. He wrote this opera at the encouragement of Franz Liszt, who must have had second thoughts.


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Der Barbier von Bagdad, a comic opera in two acts, was very popular in the 19th century, but now it’s dead, buried in the cemetery of good taste. Anyone who has ever attended this opera live can report to our Tamara from the Opera Gazet editorial desk; she’s high-spirited as it is, but the fun will double as she hands you a well-deserved bottle of champagne with Fritz Wunderlich label.

Peter Cornelius

Who the hell is Peter Cornelius? A most charming composer, somewhat comparable to Engelbert Humperdinck: entertaining music with a touch of Wagner-for-simpletons. Is the opera about something? Yes, it is! To kindle the enthusiasm of People of Now, we would like to use, with permission, their slang. This opera is about Strong Women! About Fiction and Reality! About Structures of Power! About Guilt and Forgiveness! (Just like all the other operas.)

Ouverture Der Barbier von Bagdad. Royal Scottish National Orchestra – Lance Friedel.

Fiction and Reality

Who wants to know the content? Nureddin (tenor) is in love with Margiana (soprano). Nothing new so far. Abul Hassan (bass), barber, is called upon to tidy him up for his meeting with Margiana. But Abul Hassan cops out and sneaks away. The Cadi (tenor) plans to marry his daughter Margiana to an old friend. When the lovers Nureddin and Margiana are alone, their intimate moment is cruelly disturbed by the return of Abul Hassan. The Cadi also shows up. Nureddin hides in a suitcase that also contains the gifts of Margiana’s other suitor. Abul Hassan thinks that Nureddin is dead and wants to dispose of the suitcase. The Cadi misinterprets it and thinks Abul Hassan is a thief (Fiction and Reality!). Then a deus ex machina appears, The Caliph. This is the only baritone in this opera, so: everything will be all right.

So that premiere in 1858 wasn’t a success. Liszt – who, as mentioned, was the intendant in Weimar – felt the impending disaster and tried to polish the score a little.  To no avail. About 50 years later, in 1904, the opera was performed again. But now the reception was much more enthusiastic: people were surprised that an opera with this title contained little or no exotic kitsch, but really German music. The Barber’s ‘Margianalied’, the love duet, Nureddin’s arias – all excellent music. The Salem Aleikum finale is even a gem of beautiful harmony.

Der Barbier von Bagdad: Act II: Salem aleikum – Heil diesem Hause. Kurt Moll.

Did we just write ‘Salem Aleikum’? I’m afraid we did and thus find ourselves on the slippery slope of cultural appropriation. Come again? Cultural appropriation, or cultural hijacking: when one culture takes over elements of another culture. Is that not allowed then? No, it isn’t when members of the dominant culture use style elements of a socio-ethnic minority. To put it more simply: old, white men should keep their hands off Arab heritage. So much has already gone wrong in this area. If you dare, click HERE, to hear the Dutch singer Aart Brouwer (deceased in 2013) in the song ‘Pasha Hassan’. Disgraceful that this could have happened in the Netherlands! Ethnically disoriented sinners, one and all.

Der Barbier von Bagdad. Oh Margiana! (Abul Hassan),  Julia Costa (bas).

Peter Cornelius never knew about the concept of ‘cultural hijacking’. After the failure of the Barbier premiere, he left for Vienna, where he composed his second opera, Der Cid. In 1865 he wrote his third opera, Gunlöd, in Munich. He composed numerous song cycles (“Weihnachtslieder”, “Brautlieder”), in which he showed himself to be a master of lyricism.

His opera Der Barbier von Bagdad is one of the most poetic German comic operas of the 19th century. But it doesn’t look like we’ll ever be able to attend this opera live. The stars are not aligned for simple, beautiful operas. But the internet has a solution. You can hear and see a large part of the opera, staged, HERE. Warning: this video contains shocking images.

Olivier Keegel

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Olivier Keegel


Chief Editor. Does not need much more than Verdi, Bellini and Donizetti. Wishes to resuscitate Tito Schipa and Fritz Wunderlich. Certified unmasker of directors' humbug.

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