Some thoughts on how opera still resonates in modern times.
Today marked the final performance by the Dallas Opera of Erich Korngold’s “Die tote Stadt”, a rarely performed and largely underappreciated work. Only four companies in the USA have ever mounted it since its premiere in 1920, and it only debuted in Australia in 2012. It’s a difficult opera to mount, in part due to its large orchestral requirement and the severe demands placed on the principal singers. Nonetheless it is an amazing piece that should be experienced. Korngold in many ways can be considered the father of cinematic music, and his prowess is on full display in this work.
As an example, here’s the baritone Thomas Hampson singing Fritz’s aria from Act 2:
Like any good opera, the plot itself is a bit strange. The following video (by fizzylimon) sums it up in a very tongue in cheek fashion:
Comedic interpretations aside, some scholars have argued that the themes of yearning and grief in the opera are an allegory to decline of Europe and of empire, and the comparisons have some merit. However, I would like to believe that there is a better and perhaps more obvious allegory, one that is more timeless in its content.
To me, Die tote Stadt is about a breakup. And it’s for anyone who has ever been through a breakup.
It is true that Die tote Stadt is literally about a breakup in the sense of Marie’s death, but the emotional journey of Paul is more universal.
Let’s face it, we’ve all been through the emotional rollercoaster at the loss of love. We alternate between love and hate of ourselves and our beloved, feel shame at our inability to move on, and have fear of a lonely existence. Paul’s dream represents the inward journey that we all take in overcoming the past and moving onward.
More literally, some of us have even had the Marie/Marietta experience, seeing someone that resembles our former love. Some of us may have even attempted relationships based purely on this similarity (this was actually the plot of an episode of Friends), usually with the harsh realisation that the new person is not the same as the old.
What does this have to do with the importance of opera as an art form?
Opera, and more broadly, music, acts as a touch point for emotional expression. It is a means of catharsis, a way of reassuring us that the world is not silent to our plight. We relate to it and gain strength from it by knowing that someone else somewhere has felt the same emotions and knows what we have felt, be it joy or sadness.
The stories of opera are generalisations and abstractions of the stories of our lives. Opera distills stories into to bare emotions. Often the strangeness of a plot (see above video) is the result of necessary concessions to this distillation.
As a point, most operas can be summed up in a single emotion. Carmen is about obsession. Eugene Onegin is about regret. Zauberflöte – enlightenment. La Boheme – helplessness. Rigoletto – revenge. Madama Butterfly – hope (albeit false).
Die tote Stadt is about grief.
And we have all grieved. That’s why it resonates with us, and the fusion of music, song, acting, dance and visual spectacle all serve to amplify these emotions. Korngold’s intense use of the orchestra mirrors the intensity of grief itself. And through it we are able to act out our grief for what we have lost, and like Paul, move onward.
The emotional resonance of this opera, combined with the magnificent music and singing has made it into one of my favourite operas of all time. Whilst nothing to my mind tops Verdi’s Rigoletto (a topic for another time), this comes close. Do yourself a favour and see it if you can.
It's a rare gem.
On a completely different topic, Monday will mark a year since I first visited Texas. How time flies.
Also, there probably won't be a blog post next week, since I'll be at the World MBA Rugby Championships in Danville, Virginia playing for the SMU Cox XV.
Observations on music, coffee, and the occasional controversial thought.
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