The political impact of opera in history and the recent initiatives to create an American Opera
Yale University, 18. November 2021
The essay „De-internationalisation in contemporary opera libretti“ by Amy Stebbins, fascinated me in many aspects.
1. Words against music
I like her position in the everlasting battle „Prima la musica, poi le parole“.
Being a librettist, and an excellent one, she unsurprisingly takes the position of the „parole party“.
Of course, nowadays, libretti can be storyboards, for music-theatrical actions, combining all sorts of media, and performative interventions.
Librettists do not necessarily have to write arias and recitatives anymore, they can, if they want to, but, after all, they create, what they feel is necessary to be done.
This is the only way to keep opera alive, as a vivid and valid 21st century art form.
We all need an urge to do, what we are doing. And artists even more so. They need an existential urge, which would make them suffocate, if they could not express, what they need to express.
And this is, why they do not have any choice, but to feel, what is necessary, and then to do so. Also if they fail.
This is why I prefer to see failed opera productions, to productions which do not want to show anything else but their solid craft and intelligent thought.
As Stebbins says, libretti are often linked to the cultural reality of their environment. And not only this, as she points out, sometimes even the Citizenship of the writer and the composer plays an enormous role in the creation of a new opera.
But then - and this would be the other party, the „musica party“ - comes the music and lifts this creation to something more profound, something you can experience beyond words, under your skin, and maybe even beyond any specific intention.
But not only the libretto and its plot, also the music itself can identify the national origin of its composer. E.T.A. Hoffmann was one of the first who defined a „german“, „french“, „russian“ or „italian“ musical language.
Of course, our aim always is, and will be, to merge these two parties and to celebrate one big common feast of all senses. Musica e parole!
Music touches our existence as a human being directly. It reaches senses far beyond our intellect. But when mind and body are in perfect harmony, we get a glimpse of eternity.
This is easy?
Of course, who could evoke this kind of experience, if not opera - if not the artists through their work?
This cannot be done?
Artists are the experts of the „cannot be done“. That is the best they can do. They are the ones, who know, how to do things, that cannot be done, what everybody else does not have any clue yet, how and if it could ever work…
And we need this courage - this courage in the face of death - to put opera in danger, to risk something.
This is the source and the lifeline of Experimental opera.
In Europe independent opera companies try different approaches to contemporary music theatre.
Many opera companies even refuse to call the result of their work „opera“, but rather „music theatre“, which has for them a broader and more inclusive meaning. They work with circus art, with film projections and fine arts. They improvise with music, sounds and situations, they merge with dance companies.
Many of them do only world premieres.
In Vienna the independent opera company „Neue Oper Wien“ became famous in producing the important big operas of the 20th century, which so far had been ignored by the Vienna State Opera, but mostly staged in a very conventional and sometimes even uninspired way.
Some - and very often excellent - composers and librettists write for children. This is always very welcome even by big opera houses, since even adults are more willing to buy tickets for a contemporary opera, if it is specifically written for children. They willingly take their children to world premieres, but would never attend a contemporary opera for grown ups.
When I started my fringe opera company in 1987 it was the first in Austria. My original aim was to show to my friends and former class mates how exciting opera can be.
This is why I started to stage known operas, but in a very radical way, using expressive masks, acrobats and excellent young singers, ready to try everything. We performed in in breathtaking spaces, abandoned factories, stables and lofts.
I experimented with the position of the musicians and of the audience, staged sight specific performances and included sometimes arias from other operas, if I felt it was necessary.
When Violetta died in my Traviata production, I cut the impressive „Verdi finale“, and let the orchestra stop, like if someone would switch off the radio. I was persuaded, that this would evoke the sensation of death to the audience, since death mostly strikes sudden and unforeseen.
Later I started to write my own librettos and to continue to experiment with dramatic expressions.
I wrote an opera mocking the postmodern dramaturgy,
later an opera monologue which I performed myself and for which I won the germanic equivalent of the Tony Award.
To the 100th anniversary of my fathers birth I wrote a music theatre about his life as a holocaust surviver, including all kinds of analog visual techniques performed by the israeli Galilei Theatre.
I staged together with the Belgian artist Patrick Corrion an 8 hours long love declaration to music and concerts, opening at the Wiener Konzerthaus and then travelling internationally for a couple of years.
At the Museum of Fine Arts in Vienna I staged a sight specific music theatre featuring Tintoretto's painting of the 4th crusade.
At the supreme court of Austria I staged a sight specific Kafka paraphrase to protest against inhuman politics against refugees.
After having discovered an original score of a Bolivian baroque opera composed by a native in 1704, who had been taught by an Austrian jesuit missionary priest in the jungle, I brought this opera to Vienna and confronted it with a commanded contemporary opera by Renald Deppe and Bodo Hell.
In a forest close to Vienna I staged a sight specific partisan opera, written by Lydia Mischkulnig and Magdalena Zenz, featuring the resistance against the Nazi regime in southern Austria.
At a still operating former SS army base in Vienna I staged under the patronage of the president of Austria the Opera „Kaiser of Atlantis“, written in a concentration camp by Viktor Ullman, which I have staged before in New York City.
The European system of subsidies allows some privileged artists to run risks without putting their personal existence in danger. This is an enormous luxury, which would in some cases expect much more artistic outcome.
Others are really independent and find other ways to survive.
In the United States this is standard.
Here artists usually have so called day jobs, which provide them with the desired financial freedom to run artistic risks and to do profound research.
Universities with well funded opera departments could play also an important role in the development of a contemporary American opera. Some of them start to get conscious of this enormous potential.
2. The second aspect of Stebbins essay which fascinated me was the elaboration on the current political impact of opera libretti and the lack of international exchange of new works.
Since she did not focus on the historical roots of this phenomenon in her essay, I want to give you a very brief outline on the political impact of opera in European history.
Opera was always highly political
The birth of the opera already started with a revolution: „Solo Voice against the traditional madrigals“, which represented the rise of the Individualism in philosophy and art in the 16th century. The individual resisted the role of the rulers and the Church, and formed its own shape.
This individualism, as we know, later was evolved by Johann Sebastian Bach, who composed a so-called Fuge with 4 individual equal voices as a utopia of true democracy. 4 equal voices without a leader in the peak time of absolutism in Europe.
Opera composers loved the newly discovered stories of greek gods and mythological creatures. And Orfeo gave them the best justification to write music: he was a singer. As later Tosca for Mr. Puccini… The nobles identified with the greek gods. They were like them, just that the gods were immortal.
So it is probably not surprising, that opera was initially reserved mainly for a decadent upper class, who could feast on such stories, while the people outside the castles were interested in completely different topics, because their reality of life was completely different.
They were struggling for food, and their basic needs of existence. And therefor they had their own stories - by the popular Commedia dell’Arte, performed illegally in the streets, and called dell’Arte, because it was the first professional theatre in the world. For the first time actors could make a living from their art, since they did not obey the strict rules of the church and the rulers.
Slowly, however, composers began to incorporate some witty and entertaining buffo scenes into their operas, usually at the end of each act. These were scenes modelled after the Commedia dell’Arte. This became so popular that soon the „intermezzo" was born:
Short one act operas, based on the Commedia, performed during the intermissions, only 20 minutes long, due to the length of a candle, burning to light the baroque stages.
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736), an ingenious composer who can certainly be compared to Mozart, and who died, when he was only 26, wrote "La Serva Padrona" ("The Maid as Mistress") in 1733, which was first performed in the "Teatro San Bartolomeo" in Naples. This intermezzo is often considered the first "Opera Buffa", although it was still premiered as an intermezzo after the first and second acts of Pergolesi's "Opera Seria" "Il Prigioniero Superbo". The story is firmly rooted in the Commedia in style and content, and is about a colombine, who marries her pantalone, with the help of a pantomime-acting servant, and then takes the fate of the house into her own hands.
When it was performed in Paris in 1752 by an Italian troupe as an intermezzo of Lully's opera "Acis et Galathée", it triggered the so-called "Buffonist Controversy", the "Querelle des Bouffons", which continued until 1754.
None other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau denied French music its quality, and postulated, that only Italian operas should be performed, since the Italian language sounded "soft, sonorous and well-accented" (footnote: Rousseau, Jean Jacques, Lettre sur la musique française, November 17, 1753).
Soon, however, the dispute escalated into a political argument, that - in a nutshell - was: „royal court opera“ versus „bourgeois comic opera“. In pre-revolutionary Paris, emotions soon boiled over, and the Italian comedy troupe that had performed „La Serva Padrona" was finally expelled from the country by force in 1754, and all Italian operas were banned. All enlightened spirits now rebelled, all the more, against French opera and soon, more and more blatantly against king Louis XVI himself.
In England, Johann Christian Pepusch and his librettist John Gay succeeded in snubbing the hugely successful Georg Friederich Handel in 1728 with a performance of their provocative "Beggar's Opera," and soon after the latter's home, the Royal Academy, had to close its doors to appease the people, who were on Pepusch's side.
In 1783, the Austrians celebrated 100 years of their victory over the Turkish and composed a lot of operas and music „alla turca“. Mozart copied the huge, impressive 33 instruments orchestra from Rameau and wrote „The abduction of the Serail“, Haydn wrote „Il incontro improviso“ and combined the Turkish Janissaries military music instruments with the traditional Austrian strings and founded the classical symphony orchestra of the Wiener Klassik, as we know it today. The viennese bakers baked the Turkish half moon which later became the Bagel, brought by jewish refugees to New York City.
At the same time, opera continued to have a concrete political impact in the struggle for freedom.
If in the 18th century it was still the struggle for self-determination and personal freedom of the individual, that is, to implement the goals of the Enlightenment, in the 19th century the opera became the encouragement, and the engine of nationalist revolt, and the, identity-forming symbol, of the newly emerging nation-states.
On August 25, 1830, an opera performance took place at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels on the occasion of the 58th birthday of King William I, who had ruled the Catholic, former Habsburg Netherlands since the Congress of Vienna.
„La muette de Portici" by Daniel Auber and Eugène Scribe was performed. In this opera, the Neapolitan population rebels against the Spanish occupiers.
The duet "Amour sacré de la patrie" ("The sacred love of the fatherland") excited the audience. Then, in Act 3, when the chorus rose and sang, "Courons á la vengeance! Des armes, des flambeaux!" ("Let's run for vengeance! Weapons, torches!") the audience could no longer be contained. They stormed out of the opera shouting, "To arms!" thus initiating the revolution that led to the creation of the state of Belgium.
Opera also developed an important revolutionary force in Italy.
The works of Giuseppe Verdi are closely associated, with the effort to unify Italy, into a nation-state, and to liberate it, from the Bourbon and Habsburg occupation forces. It was not only his name that could already be read as a political manifesto (V-ittorio E-manuele R-è D-i I-talia), when Giuseppe Garibaldi demanded that Vittorio Emanuele II be named king of a united Italy, but of course his music, which gave the Italian people an identity. The liberation chorus "Va pensiero" ("Fly, thought") from the opera Nabucco became virtually the anthem of the Italian resistance movement.
When the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I, in his almost typical Austrian way, tried to appease the Milanese high nobility, by writing to the top of society, inviting them to a prestigious opera performance at La Scala in Milan, which he "intended to attend himself," they secretly colluded among themselves, and the Austrian Emperor eventually found himself with his wife Sissi, in a hall full of bawling servants. Not one of the nobles had accepted this invitation, but had passed it on to their servants, who were probably hearing an opera for the first time in their lives. This incident was an unusual revolution of the nobles with the help of their servants, which openly mocked the emperor, before Garibaldi brought it to a happy end for Italy soon after, with his "March of the 1000“ in 1861.
The Czechs also articulated their demand for independence with the help of an opera. It was the opera "Dalibor" by Bendrich Smetana that was performed to lay the foundation stone of the Czech National Theater and sparked a nationalistic signal against the Habsburgs.
Richard Wagner took it even further. With his operas, he not only wanted to give a united Germany an artistic identity by drawing largely on Germanic myths in his poetry, but he also wanted to use art as the perfecter of religion. The redemption promised by the church was to be attained through art. Accordingly, he did not call his "Parsifal," based on the medieval coming-of-age novel, by Wolfram von Eschenbach, an "opera" but a „Bühnenweihefestspiel“, a „Stage consecration festival“. Wagner eliminated all christian aspects of the novel and brought it back to the pagan roots of the original myth.
So operas always represented national identity, even when they had been performed in other countries, and although very often, their composers were not even citizens.
Almost all composers who created the French opera were foreigners. Gluck, Meyerbeer (Jacob Liebmann Beer) and Offenbach were germans, Ignace Pleyel Austrian and Lully italian. He had been invited by the Cardinal and later minister of finance Jules Mazarin, who also was originally italian himself, and created the french baroque opera. When Mazarin died, all Italian artists were expelled. In the 19th century the german jew Jacques Offenbach, who defined the french operetta, had to escape to Germany after the war against Prussia, when the hatred against Germans and also the antisemitism became unbearable.
How about the American opera?
The creation of an „American Opera“ seems to be an endless project and had been conducted mostly by immigrants.
Lorenzo Daponte, Librettist of Mozart, had to escape from his creditors to New York City. He arrived with a set of strings and a carpet, since all his belongings had been stolen on the trip.
He worked in a fruit shop, and as an Italian teacher.
Later he opened a book store in Manhattan and initiated the first American opera house, which burned down in 1836.
Kurt Weill, who escaped from the Nazis to New York, wanted to realise his dream of an "American Opera" composing "Street Scene“ and offering it to the Americans out of gratitude.
In the 21st century, all American opera houses proclaim, in a common effort, the promotion and development of the American opera.
They command American stories in the libretti, but above all,
they try to emancipate from the European roots, and aim to research in their own musical tradition, to introduce Native American and African American music to opera.
This is doubtlessly a very inspiring approach which can open up new horizons to this art form.
Especially since there are basically only about 20 operas in the international repertory which are being performed over and over again.
Today nationalism rarely is as alive as in opera.
Everybody knows, e.g., that the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which forms the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, hates french composers, so they deliberately perform badly during the rehearsals of these works - as they did, by the way, during the rehearsals of Olga Neuwirth’s Orlando, that Stebbins analysed in her essay.
At the opening night usually all is perfect, since they have a great reputation to loose…but it is their way to indicate their national and artistic pride.
At last there is one genre, which I do not want to leave out: the operetta.
All over Europe, we still encounter a complete ignorance of the canon of foreign operettas. It is a lack of education as well as a lack of curiosity.
No Austrian will know one operetta by Maurice Yvain, a wonderful french composer who wrote the most hilarious and fantastic operettas, which are constantly sold out in Paris.
And no French will know the Csardas Fürstin, Wiener Blut or Weisses Rössl, all big hits in the germanic world.
The same with Gilbert&Sullivan, who almost never are performed outside the UK and Zarzuelas remain in Spain.
All my attempts to persuade the various directors of the Viennese operetta theatre „Volksoper“, to schedule international great works, have failed completely.
But after all, by looking at nationalism, we distort our perspective on what is important in making opera.
It is not the country where we come from, it is not the country where we work, it is not our gender or our origin, our color of skin.
It's not what separates us.
The reason to make art is what connects us all, what all people have in common.
These are the great questions of life and our own mortality.
In opera, sacred acts take place in our profane society.
Art is „beyond good and evil".
Nietzsche called it "Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future."
Opera gives us the utopia of immortality. And immortality implies eternity. And that only exists, where there is no past, and no future. But exactly in this tiny little space in between. In the here and now. That is the truth of the moment. And it is full of joy.
„And joys all want eternity-
Want deep profound eternity!“