German stations row over 'Ulysses' broadcast

Wed, Apr 18, 2012, 01:00

WHAT IS the plural of Ulysses? That is a question Germans can ponder when they tune in to not one but two marathon radio broadcasts celebrating James Joyce’s mammoth work.

The first, an all-star unabridged reading in 80 episodes, began airing on Monday on Berlin station RBB Kulturradio. Instead of praise, however, it has been attacked by its Stuttgart sister, SWR2.

The Stuttgart culture station has recorded its own Ulysses – a radio dramatisation – to be aired in a 22-hour marathon on Bloomsday, June 16th.

“We’re not very happy about this duplication,” says Johannes Weiß, SWR2 programme director. “We heard they were planning theirs but were irritated when we heard they were broadcasting it now.”

RBB commissioning editor Claus-Ulrich Bielefeld shrugs off the criticism, saying Berlin’s plans were well flagged. Neither broadcasts in the other’s region, he adds, and the two projects are very different takes on the same literary work.

“SWR are of the opinion that they have a monopoly, that no one else should produce Ulysses, but we see it differently,” Mr Bielefeld says. “A reading is different to a radio play: the main actor is the language itself. To let the language resonate is in itself a remarkable experience. The more difficult it is to penetrate a text, the more listeners like having it read to them.”

Both productions are high-class, high-cost affairs. RBB engaged more than 40 top-drawer actors for 251 roles, began recording half a year ago and only finished earlier this month. The total cost: €35,000.

Director Ralph Schäfer says the greatest challenge is to open up the work to a wider audience while staying true to the unabridged text. “It’s important that the listener doesn’t realise how difficult the text actually is.”

The SWR production is another who’s who of German acting talent and cost €200,000 – the most expensive radio play in SWR history. On June 16th, its Ulysses will be the star of a Bloomsday public listening party in Berlin.

Regardless of their disagreements, both productions were only possible thanks to James Joyce’s public domain debut this year. “The grandson of Joyce always wanted more money for the rights than we could afford,” Mr Bielefeld in Berlin says.

“Like others we decided to wait until now, when he doesn’t have the rights any more.”