Bach’s coffee

In eighteenth-century Leipzig, a new temptation beckoned from the street corners–coffee. This new luxury inspired Johann Sebastian Bach to write a miniature comic opera known as the “Coffee Cantata.” Last year, a group of University of Chicago students founded the Cantata Collegium, and Thursday evening’s performance of the satirical “Coffee Cantata” at the Smart Museum of Art was their debut. The group was able to secure an Arts Council grant to adapt the piece for a modern audience. This involved a complete translation of the libretto from German to English, modified instrumentation, and original costume and set designs.

A result of the ever-productive traders of the Ottoman Empire, coffee became widespread in the Holy Roman Empire early in the eighteenth century, and coffee houses sprang up on the streets of Berlin, Leipzig, and other Central European cities. The coffee houses became hotbeds for political and cultural discourse. In England, according to musical director Stephen Raskauskas, newspapers would send spies to coffee houses to get the scoop on government happenings. Coffee houses were off-limits to women, presumably due to the tendency of the beverage to provoke clear and profound thinking. Women were able to obtain coffee at home, which is where we find the characters of the story…

After an introduction of chamber music, the narrator emerges–in perfect period costume–and introduces the two other characters, the lovely, young, and coffee-crazed Liesgen and her exasperated father, Schlendrian. He demands she quit that most unwomanly habit of drinking coffee, to which she responds, “If I cannot have my coffee to drink three times a day at least, I will become as a result as burnt out as some roasted goat flesh” (a direct translation). When he threatens never to betroth her, she agrees to give up her caffeine fix. In the end, however, she slips a clause into the marriage contract while her father isn’t looking, requiring her future husband to allow her as much coffee as she wants.

Bach intended the piece as half celebration of the marvelous beverage, half critique of the exclusion of women from the coffeehouse. The libretto concludes, “If mothers love their coffee breaks, and Grandmama also partakes, who then sees fit to blame the daughters!” It would certainly be a travesty to exclude anyone from enjoying the well-tuned mindset after a cup of joe. That coffee-induced buzz is no small beans–in fact, some even credit coffee with instigating the Age of Enlightenment.

The “Coffee Cantata” will be performed twice more: Thursday, May 8, at noon, and Saturday, May 10, at 6:30pm, both at the Fulton Recital Hall, 5845 S. Ellis Ave.