It is the long-standing custom of the Bard SummerScape Festival to present an important neglected opera, closely related to the composer around whom the Festival is built, but not by the composer himself. In my recollection, Schumann’s Genoveva, Zemlinsky’s Eine Florentinische Tragödie and Der Zwerg, Szymanowski’s King Roger, as well as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots were all important, of very high quality, and significantly related to Liszt, Elgar, Prokofiev, and Wagner. This year’s opera, Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang, is no exception, in fact, as a neglected opera, it is especially important, because in its time it was one of the most often staged contemporary operas in Germany.
Its premiere in Frankfurt received mixed reviews, but passionate ones, and it quickly became popular with the public. It made a famous man out of Schreker, who continued to build a successful career with his later work, until a flop or two and the virulent attacks of the National Socialists, who labelled him as a Jewish composer, sent his career into a tailspin. The premiere of his opera, Der Schmied von Gent in 1932 was beset with right-wing demonstrations. He was forced out of his directorship of the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin in the same year. He found work teaching a masterclass at the Prussian Academy of the Arts, but he was put on leave in May 1933 and formally dismissed in September of that year. In December 1933 he suffered a stroke and died a few months later, two days before his 56th birthday.
The Nazis found Schreker’s work especially distasteful and suppressed it ruthlessly. After the War his work received little attention, but in the 1970s, perhaps drawn along with Mahler in the current revival of interest in early 20th century Dekadenz, it slowly came back into favor — in Germany at least. This will be the American premiere staged production. It was previously performed in concert version by the American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein during their 2006-07 season in Avery Fisher Hall. The opera is notoriously difficult to perform, and this previous experience and the favorable reviews the concert performance received bode well for the Bard performances. I have not yet seen a Bard summer production that was not of the highest order, with all aspects of operatic production brilliantly served: consistently superb singers, sympathetic and revealing conducting by Leon Botstein, committed playing by the American Symphony Orchestra, and cutting-edge direction and stage design. Thaddeus Strassberger not only met most of the challenges of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots — often said to be unperformable — last year with exhilarating success, he raised a few eyebrows as well. [Click here to read our review.)
To enrich its evocation of Viennese modernism, Bard presents the first fully-staged U.S. production of Der ferne Klang, 1910 (The Distant Sound), by Berg’s compatriot Franz Schreker, in its centenary year. Returning to oversee the landmark production is Thaddeus Strassberger, who directed last season’s resounding success at Bard, Meyerbeer’s grand opera Les Huguenots. The opera’s four performances (July 30, August 1, 4, & 6) feature the festival’s resident American Symphony Orchestra under music director Leon Botstein, who gives a free Opera Talk before the August 1 performance.
There is a tendency today to identify musical modernism primarily with the Second Viennese School, and particularly with Schoenberg. Yet consideration of the period’s operas suggests that the reality was more complicated. “To tell the story of Viennese modernism through its operas would necessitate redrawing the city’s artistic faultlines,” writes Christopher Hailey, editor of the forthcoming volume, Alban Berg and His World. Two of the genre’s leading lights were Franz Schreker and Alexander von Zemlinsky, both of whom, Hailey explains, “had a profound influence upon Alban Berg, who prepared the piano vocal score of Der ferne Klang. Wozzeck and Lulu are unthinkable without their example. Indeed, Zemlinsky, Schreker, and Berg represent an aesthetic and musical triumvirate at least as compelling as the more familiar constellation of Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern.”
From 1901–03, the young Schoenberg was based in Berlin, where, like fellow Viennese composer Oscar Straus, he conducted Germany’s first cabaret, known as the “Überbrettl” (or “super music hall”). Co-founded by playwright Frank Wedekind, whose two “Lulu” plays would form the basis of Berg’s seminal opera of that name, Überbrettl was intended to raise the standard of variety theater, and Schoenberg and Oscar Straus – like Zemlinsky – were among those who made musical contributions. Schoenberg’s expressionist masterpiece Pierrot lunaire (1912) reveals cabaret’s enduring influence on his work, and cabaret songs predominate in the oeuvre of Oscar Straus, who composed Bard’s operetta for this year, The Chocolate Soldier. The story of musical modernism, then, rather than tracing a linear path, must embrace the complex web of relationships and ideas that flourished within the burgeoning artistic community of the time. Bard’s Schreker and Straus revivals play a pivotal part in representing Berg’s world in all its heterogeneous richness.
Schreker’s Der ferne Klang, though familiar in Europe, has never yet – in the century since its composition – been fully staged in North America. Hailed early in his career as the most significant musical dramatist since Wagner, Schreker (1878–1934) studied composition with legendary pedagogue Robert Fuchs, whose students included Mahler, Zemlinsky, Korngold, and Sibelius. Schreker’s music came to be characterized by aesthetic plurality, blending elements of Romanticism, naturalism, expressionism, and Neue Sachlichkeit (“new objectivity”), perhaps reflecting his sense of being something of a mixture himself, as the offspring of a controversial marriage between a Catholic aristocrat and a Jewish court photographer. According to Hailey, who is also founder and director of the Franz Schreker Foundation, “Der ferne Klang – the distant sound – is a fitting metaphor for Schreker’s own struggle to find his voice because it captures something essential about the nature of his search, the quality of his aural experience.”
“The premise of Der ferne Klang is simply told,” Hailey explains. “A composer forsakes a woman’s love for a chimeric sound that is but the distant echo of her presence. It is a tidy plot for an opera, a love story of tragic deferral and a paradoxical meditation upon the vanities of ‘l’art pour l’art’.” Besides telling the story of the composer and the elusive ideal shimmering beyond his grasp, the opera addresses the plight of his loved one, a woman exploited by the society she lives in, who survives by retreating into her dreams, while she survives in life as a prostitute, sliding further and further down the scale, from an elegant Venetian brothel to the streets. Like Wagner, Schreker wrote his own libretto, and his masterful melding of disparate dramatic devices and psychological and cultural forces, along with the beauty and brilliance of his score, makes The Distant Sound one of the most moving and groundbreaking works of 20th-century opera.
Thaddeus Strassberger, director of last season’s lavishly praised Huguenots presentation and winner of the 2005 European Opera Directing Prize, returns to direct, with set designs by Narelle Sissons, whose credits include Babes in Toyland at Lincoln Center (2008), and costume design by Mattie Ullrich, who created the costumes for SummerScape’s productions of The Sorcerer (2007) and Les Huguenots (2009). Tenor Mathias Schulz stars as Fritz, and soprano Yamina Maamar plays Grete, repeating her enthusiastically reviewed NYC performance. The Distant Sound’s four performances (July 30, August 1, 4, & 6) will be sung in Schreker’s original German with English supertitles, and conducted by music director Leon Botstein.
This season, Bard SummerScape also presents Oscar Straus’s operetta The Chocolate Soldier (1908). Straus studied composition with Max Bruch while working in Berlin at the Überbrettl cabaret. After emigrating when Austria came under Nazi rule in 1938, he composed for both Broadway and Hollywood, but it is for his operettas that he is best remembered. The Chocolate Soldier is an amalgam of Viennese chamber opera and British wit, being based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Arms and the Man. When Shaw gave librettist Leopold Jacobson the rights to adapt the work, it was on three conditions: none of Shaw’s original dialogue or the characters’ original names could be used; it would have to be advertised clearly as a parody of his play; and he would not accept monetary compensation. Shaw lived to regret this last condition, as the operetta became an international success: the first English-language version of The Chocolate Soldier premiered in New York in 1909, and was the hit of the Broadway season, while its London premiere the following year ran for 500 performances. Despite the playwright’s embargoes, the adaptation retains Shaw’s original comic plot and the play’s central message – that military rank is no guarantee of heroism – with the welcome addition of Straus’s sumptuous music.
Directing the new production is award-winning director and choreographer Will Pomerantz, with sets and costumes by internationally-acclaimed designer Carol Bailey, who previously collaborated with Pomerantz on Of Thee I Sing at SummerScape 2008. Leading a first-rate cast, Lynne Abeles, praised by the New York Times for her “standout” performance in DiCapo Opera Theatre’s Emmeline, will star opposite baritone Andrew Wilkowske, whose recent Papageno for Virginia Opera “stole the show” (Washington Post). The Chocolate Soldier will be conducted by James Bagwell, Bard Music Festival’s Director of Choruses since 2003, who inspired glowing praise when he led SummerScape 2005’s production of The Tender Land. Opening on August 5 (the first of nine performances, Aug 5–15), the new production will be sung in English. Before the performance on August 8, Bagwell, who also serves as Music Director of the Collegiate Chorale, will give an Opera Talk.
For tickets and further information on all SummerScape events, call the Fisher Center box office at 845- 758-7900 or visit www.fishercenter.bard.edu.