restricted access 11, Performing Race in Ernst Krenek's Jonny spielt auf
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11 Performing Race in Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf jonathan o. wipplinger Though by far his most well-known work, Ernst Krenek had an ambiguous relationship toward his fourth opera, Jonny spielt auf, or “Jonny Strikes Up” (1927). This work is an ambitious combination of European modernism, American popular music, and what Krenek took to be jazz. Its plot pits a central European composer, Max, against an African American jazz musician, Jonny, popular and vital “jazz” against an icy and intellectual modernism. In the end, Jonny wins out over his European counterpart, and the opera concludes with a panegyric to Jonny, jazz, and America.1 Despite the daring of the experiment, audiences generally responded enthusiastically. First in Germany and then from Paris to Moscow, Belgrade to Antwerp and beyond,2 audiences swarmed to the opera’s more than four hundred performances in the late 1920s.3 Indeed, its fame was such that it was possible for a brand of Jonny cigarettes to be marketed in Austria.4 Such unparalleled success brought the twenty-seven-year-old Krenek financial security and international recognition, but the opera’s inclusion of jazz, modern technology, and interracial relations brought him controversy as well. Conservatives lambasted the work as a travesty of the Western tradition, while some quarters of the avant-garde, the Schoenberg circle in particular, criticized Krenek for forsaking their revolution in music for mere monetary gain.5 All this, the success and the critique, came as a shock to the young Krenek, who would insist in later writings that his intentions behind Jonny spielt auf had been misunderstood, both by its admirers and by its critics. Above all else, Krenek resisted the notion that Jonny spielt auf was a “jazz opera,” a term often applied to the opera during the Weimar Republic.6 Krenek was by no means unaware of the friction between the nomenclature of the “jazz opera” and his actual sparing use of jazz music in the opera; indeed, as many contemporary critics have pointed out, there is very little resembling authentic jazz in the opera, even as it was practiced in the 1920s.7 As early as 1928and as late as 1980, Krenek made clear that jazz did not constitute the musical foundation of this work. By the same token, however, jazz and African American culture are important points of reference for the opera: Jonny is the black band leader of the jazz band heard throughout the opera, and it is his music, rhythmic, tonal, and melodious, that contrasts most sharply to that of the other characters. So although Jonny spielt auf cannot be said to be a “jazz opera”—its “jazz” remains all too European and serves more as a point of contrast than as a foundational principle—it is a work deeply concerned with jazz, African Americans, and their image within European culture. I will explore this idea through an analysis of the role of race and racial representation within Krenek’s work. This will mean paying particular attention to how Jonny’s musical, cultural, and racial identities are constructed in the opera. Beginning with a discussion of race and racial stereotypes within the score and libretto, also authored by Krenek, I suggest that Jonny is an amalgam of contradictory and competing ideas about African Americans and their music, drawing equally from the world of blackface minstrelsy, “jazz age” images of African Americans, and European ideas about African American spirituals and folk music. These multiple strands of Jonny’s identity, between blackface and blackness, are never entirely reconciled in the opera. As a result, Jonny’s true origin, the home to which he sings of returning toward the end of the opera, remains undefined. Unsurprisingly, the complexity of Jonny’s character has had important consequences for the performance history of the opera. As I show in the second half, productions of the opera from the 1920s to the present have more often than not eschewed the ambiguity of the figure in favor of one element over another. From the Nazi appropriation of the image of Jonny as an essentialized black musician to the New York Metropolitan Opera’s staging of Jonny as a white blackface minstrel, Jonny’s identity has been the most consistently inconsistent aspect of the opera’s production history. Yet these inconsistencies have not been forced on Krenek’s work from the outside; rather, they form the core of the opera itself. So before looking to how others interpreted Jonny, we must first...


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