On the Smallness of Your City When Your City is Berlin

So in the interest of actually updating this thing, and staying away from certain topics that are fast becoming boring to both me and you, my loyal reader(s?) (WG-searches, visa-agony), and certain others that I really shouldn’t talk about if I want to keep my job (namely, my job), I’m going to tell you a little story about one of those topics that we expats are continuously harping on about: the smallness of the city of Berlin. Of course, when we start discussing just how many people we ran into at a certain bar or brunch café, or just how many people we know who also know friends of ours, we tend to forget that our Berlin world is quite a bit smaller than everyone else’s. We are all, after all, in various states of ignorance regarding the German language, and most of us, except for the very resourceful and intrepid, tend to hang out more with our own kind, for fear of being discovered as German-language frauds, or even worse, as a non-Berliners who are merely contaminating the city as we make it our temporary home instead of enriching it.

I have, however, made a somewhat concerted effort to move outside of and beyond the several small circles I have made my own. I love meeting new people, have no problem walking in to a party where I know almost no one, and relish being introduced to interesting characters whose connections to me are merely tenuous at best. Anyone who knows me knows that I can keep a conversation going longer than anyone thought humanly possible; that I can talk without stopping for breath for hours on end (as two friends who invited me to drop in casually on their brunch today might have quickly realized). But I was recently surprised to learn about a very bizarre connection that I have to one of my favorite musical artists of all time, through not one, but two friends of mine.

The artist is Max Raabe, a German singer who has achieved great fame and success by doing something very simple: taking the songs of 1920’s America and Weimar-era Germany and performing them onstage with his very own orchestra, complete with impeccably-styled clothing, snide and clever commentary, and an arched and knowing eyebrow. I wish I could say I had found him myself, but really he was a treasure first discovered by my parents when I was in Berlin last fall, perhaps as they tried to make some sense of the allure of Germany, to put their finger on exactly what it was that drew me here and compelled me to stay. Needless to say, the first time I heard him sing I fell instantly in love: everything about him was my style, almost as if he had been created from thin air specifically to please my musical tastes and my lifelong wish to travel back to the era of flapper dresses and white dinner gloves. I couldn’t get enough of his music, and began buying up albums and DVD’s of live performances at an astonishing pace. When I first got to Berlin (and I mean literally the first week), I went to the home of the Philharmonic Orchestra near Potsdamer Platz with a few friends in hopes of getting the useful “Classic Card” (yes, it’s spelled the English way but pronounced with a German accent). As I perused the shelves of pamphlets from theater companies and music halls around town that can be found in all performing arts venues, I was shocked to come across one pamphlet for the Admiralspalast—an old vaudeville hall in Berlin that had been remade into a multi-purpose performing arts destination—with a gorgeous picture of Max Raabe on the cover. I snatched it up, found that he would be performing here, eventually bought tickets, life now complete.

The same day I picked up the pamphlet, however, I had plans to meet my friend Claudia for dinner later that night. I had met her while Couchsurfing through Southern Germany and Austria with my friend Meredith at the end of October: she was the gracious hostess who made our time in Vienna so memorable. An opera singer with the most precocious eleven-year-old I’ve ever met as a daughter, Claudia welcomed us with a bushel of chestnuts and several bottles of wine our first night, directed us to go hiking up a vineyard covered mountain and led us on an expedition to a 19th-century cemetery to mark All Saint’s Day, the day after Halloween. She had come to Berlin to watch over the house of another friend of hers, and had invited me to a dinner with her and two other friends. After our meal I unloaded all of the pamphlets I had collected that day, and showed her the one from Admiralspalast, asking casually whether she knew of Max Raabe. She replied, surprisingly although it shouldn’t have been, that she not only knew of him, she had actually known him personally.

“We used to fence together,” she told me, as if this were a completely normal piece of information (no matter that I fenced all through high school as well, so this was not as strange to me as it might have been to someone else).
“He’s so famous now,” she continued. “Recently I went to a show of his and asked him if he wanted to go for a coffee afterwards, but he was so important and distracted. He basically said, ‘oh I have to meet with my agent and blah blah blah’ and then that was it.” I detected a faint note of disappointment and sadness in her voice.
“You know we studied opera together at first,” she went on. “That’s how I know him. He was never a very good classical singer.”
“Well I guess it’s a good thing he wasn’t good at opera, because he did this instead, and he’s made for it.”
I was beginning to get the sinking feeling that my recently-acquired idol was some kind of fraud—that no real singer or musician actually listened to him. So how was every concert of his always sold out? How had he achieved such success? I wondered these things as we began to prepare dessert, but Claudia had one last bit of information for me, which came about ten minutes later, after I had assumed the conversation on Herr Raabe was closed:
“You know that isn’t even his real name,” she supplied carefully.
“What?” I asked. “Still Max?”
“His real name is Mattias Otto. You can probably look it up in the phonebook.”
That was her last offering on Max/Mattias Raabe/Otto, and I decided it would be better if I did not bring him up again.

Now I know what you’re thinking: this wasn’t such a big deal. After all, one well-connected person in the performing arts world was certainly sure to know another, but this is only half of it. The other half came a couple of weeks later, when I was at my friend Patricia’s house, coincidentally in the same area of Kreuzberg. Our conversation was eerily similar.

“Do you know about Max Raabe?”
“Actually I’ve worked on several theater productions with him, but this was about ten years ago, back before he was famous. He’s huge now!”
“I get the sense that real singers and artists aren’t too fond of him.”
“Yes, well, his voice is really not that great for opera. He’s got a really weak voice, and he makes it even smaller as he sings. You can actually hear it…”
“Is he gay or straight?”
“Honestly, I don’t think even he knows.”
“Yeah, and I’m sure he would never admit to being one or the other because whatever he said, he would lose half of his fan base.”
“What’s he like in person?”
“Very strange. He never really fully broke character.”
“Like, he was always half Max Raabe—always half in the 1920’s? That’s funny because you see him onstage and you know it’s in act, and you wonder how much effort it takes to keep up that persona, and if that persona starts to just…become you.”
“Well, when I worked on productions with him, he never seemed to listen. He always had these very clear ideas of what he wanted to do, and you could give him directions but then he’d only appear to pay very close attention and instead would do exactly what he wanted!”

The following week I saw Max Raabe in concert from the front row of the second balcony, to the left of the stage. Binoculars in-hand to catch a glimpse of him upclose, notebook and pencil at the ready to jot down every song, I noticed an older man next to me doing the same thing. In a mixture of German and English, we spoke about Max very briefly, before the curtain went up and the lights went down.

“I know him, you know,” he said to me. “I organized a tour to Russia for him and his orchestra during a recent festival there.”

I immediately envisioned meeting my beloved Max and embarking on a wild affair with him in which I would only wear flapper dresses and feathered headbands. I was sure that, just after the last tune had been sung and the curtain had gone down, this man would put his binoculars and notebook away as I put away mine, stand up, stretch, and in an off-handed manner, as if it were nothing at all, as me if I would like to go backstage and meet his friend, Max Raabe. But when I came back to my seat after the intermission, the man was gone, never to return.