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  • Ernst Krenek's "On the Situation of Opera"
  • Heather Wiebe

The contributors to this volume have looked beyond the operatic debates of the Weimar Republic, which arguably speak most directly to opera's twentieth-century obsolescence. Those debates are represented here, however, by the composer and critic Ernst Krenek (1900–1991). Before writing this essay, he had produced one of the greatest operatic successes of Weimar Germany: Jonny spielt auf (1927), a Zeitoper in which a cliché-spouting composer is engulfed by a world of commodified entertainment, not entirely without glee. By the early 1930s, however, Krenek was producing a different sort of opera, his twelve-tone Karl V (1933), which took a sharp turn to historical and religious themes.

"Zur Situation der Oper," from the 1958 collection Zur Sprache gebracht, first appeared in the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1932.1 It makes a telling companion to Krenek's later essay from the same collection, "Is Opera Still Possible Today?" (1936), which has long been available in English.2 Like the later essay, it takes issue with Bertolt Brecht's writings on opera, but the strident tone here is perhaps a bit surprising. In "The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre" (1930), Brecht had taken a passing swipe at Krenek: "Those composers who stem from Wagner still insist on posing as philosophers. A philosophy which is of no use to man or beast, and can only be disposed of as a means of sensual satisfaction. (Elektra, Jonny spielt auf.)"3 Here Krenek fights back, insisting on opera's potential for a profound and lively humanity, even a spiritual significance. At the same time, he bemoans a modern betrayal of that potential, a turn (using Brecht's terms with a revised meaning) to "culinary" opera on one hand and "didactic" opera on the other—one a theater of refined animalism, the other of pure intellect. For Krenek, the failure of these operatic modes has much to do with a certain antagonism toward song and the singer, whom he sees as newly reduced to either rigid "marionette" or "chanting agitator." In this sense, his essay resonates with the recurring discussions of voice and singer in this issue, affirming their centrality to opera's twentieth-century crises. Krenek makes a strident case against opera's obsolescence, interpreting a contemporary sense of its deadness as in fact a mercenary determination to kill it. At the same time, he allows his [End Page 124] descriptions of its contemporary state—in which specifically operatic elements become "a meaningless prop," or a "ruinous relic"—to overshadow his own vision of its survival.


1. Ernst Krenek, "Zur Situation der Oper," in Zur Sprache gebracht: Essays über Musik, ed. Friedrich Saathen (Munich: Albert Langen–Georg Müller, 1958), 130–38. A version of this essay, with only minor changes, can be found in the Frankfurter Zeitung, 20 May, 1932, 1-2; see Garrett Bowles, Ernst Krenek: A Bio-Bibliography (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), 144.

2. It is included in Exploring Music: Essays by Ernst Krenek, trans. Margaret Shenfield and Geoffrey Skelton (New York: October House, 1966), 97–112. Although Exploring Music is nominally a translation of Zur Sprache gebracht, it omits a number of the essays in the original German collection, among them "Zur Situation der Oper."

3. Bertolt Brecht and Peter Suhrkamp, "The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre," in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Macmillan, 1964), 33–42. First published in Bertolt Brecht, Versuche 2 (Berlin: G. Kiempenheuer, 1930). [End Page 125]



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