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On a Train with … Michael Kunze Interview with the librettist of the pop oratorio “Luther”

Michael Kunze is a successful songwriter, author and librettist. He wrote the pop oratorio “Luther”, which is touring Germany in 2017. (Photo: Alexander Wulz)

Michael Kunze is a songwriter, author and librettist. Several successful German and international pop music hits have flown from his pen, including numbers sung by Udo Jürgens, Peter Alexander, Juliane Werding and Münchner Freiheit, and his achievements have been recognised with a Grammy and the ECHO Lifetime Award. In the 1980s he began to translate international musical hits into German – the German versions of “Cats”, “The Phantom of the Opera”, “Wicked”, “The Lion King” and “Mamma Mia” were all written by Michael Kunze.

But Kunze has not only translated foreign musicals into German – he has also written his own, musicals such as “Elisabeth”, “Dance of the Vampires” (together with Roman Polánski), “Rebecca” or “Mozart!”. In 2010, together with composer Dieter Falk, he created the pop oratorio “The Ten Commandments”.  2,555 singers from 90 German choirs performed at its premiere in Dortmund’s Westfalenhalle. Latterly the two have written the pop oratorio “Luther”, which also premiered in the Westfalenhalle in Dortmund, on Reformation Day 2015. In the Luther Year of 2017, the production is touring nationwide. met up with Michael Kunze on the train to Hamburg. We spoke about the challenge presented by large choirs and the question of how to approach a great figure like Martin Luther. What is the significance of the Reformation for you and what do you feel is its relevance today?

I think there are a lot of events marking the Luther Year. Our oratorio essentially has a different goal to the EKD events. We’re not aiming to honour the historical figure of Luther, we want to bring to life the thoughts and ideas that come from him. Of course we also want to free the figure of Luther from its monumental status. That’s what it’s about for us. We want to put on an evening in which people think of the figure of Martin Luther with enjoyment and take that feeling home with them. That’s the idea of the oratorio. You mention Luther’s monumental status. How do you manage to turn him into a character that the public can engage with on an individual level?

We use pop music to do that. We think that clear, understandable lyrics can convey Luther’s original message even today. That is particularly the case with our main theme, “Thinking for Yourself”. The pop oratorio deals with Luther’s interrogation before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms. Why did you choose this section of Luther’s life and not another chapter of his extensive biography?

It’s a dramaturgical trick of course. I think that the most dramatic moment in Luther’s life was the Diet of Worms. Here it was a matter of life and death. He had to deal with all the influences pressuring him. There’s the political influence, the influence of the banks, the influence of the admiration he was held in by certain parts of the populace, who completely misunderstood him. All this took place in Worms, and hence Worms is a key juncture above all else dramaturgically suited to portraying the entire problematic Luther was wrestling with. And I think we have pulled that off. I’ve read that you wrote your doctorate on witch trials. Do you see parallels between these witch trials and Luther’s interrogation at the Diet?

That’s not quite the full picture. I wrote my thesis on a witch trial in the broadest sense, but it was more of a representation of life in the sixteenth century. I am very familiar with the sixteenth century, from which Luther hails, and in that regard a lot of my experience as a historian has gone into the oratorio. But this interrogation at the Diet is much more than a witch trial. It’s about heresy. The parallel is not so much with witch trials, then, as with the proceedings against Jan Hus at the Council of Constance, which, as we know, ended with him being burnt at the stake. The same thing could have happened in Worms. Luther only escaped this fate by hair’s breadth. The pop oratorio “Luther” involves many people, in Dortmund there were over 3,000 choralists. Do you write differently for such a huge amount of actors than you do for a “normal” musical?

When you’ve got a choir of 3,000 people, the texts have to be even clearer, even simpler, even easier to understand. You can’t develop complicated thoughts – or if you want to develop them, you have to do so in short, clear sentences. It is difficult to understand such a large choir, but I have a lot of experience in this area and hence I think it works pretty well. Mister Kunze, thank you for talking to us.


Michael Kunze, pop oratorio, Martin Luther, choir, Diet of Worms