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  • On the Situation of Opera 1932from Brought to Expression: Essays about Music
  • Ernst Krenek
    Translated by Amy Stebbins and Hannah Eldridge

A certain movement was initially decisive for the recent development of opera's representational style, a movement that signified a rejection of the monumental and weighty, grandiose and extensive pathos of the age of music drama. The "purely human" was to be worked out, the "essential" highlighted; the old style's reveling in material detail was conceived as a hollow, decorative moment. This was the age of the stylized stage, of the simplified, stylized set, of suggestion, of symbol, in place of a sensuous, physical reality. But when the new theory was not always capable of doing justice to the work, and as the cognoscenti began to oppose an oppressive reinterpretation of the entirety of the theatrical corpus, increasingly one sought to probe the inner coherence of works bound for the stage and sought, with the greatest possible fidelity, to deduce from each object its most immanent principle of representation. Much can be said for this method, which is, under the given circumstances, the most appropriate. In the end, there is always more to be gained when an intellectually [geistig] insignificant interpreter strives to execute that which is already there than when a talent attempts a supreme interpretation of a work and thereby distorts it. Nevertheless, under normal conditions, the second type, the independent achievement of a creative reproducer, would rank far above the tinkering pedant. The difficulty is that conditions today are not normal, and not for lack of talented interpreters but rather because these interpreters are not embedded in the collective artistic will [künstleriche Gesamtwollen] of their age: for this age shows no sign of having any such communal will. These days, assuming a certain unabashed certainty and persuasiveness of the rendering, a Lohengrin between slides and screens is imaginable alongside a concept faithfully modeled on the 1860s, and there is no instinctive, spontaneous, universally available, or certain insight as to which is right. In such strange times, it is from the standpoint of the author undoubtedly clear that he must consider himself lucky to find someone who does what the [End Page 126] author himself wishes, although it may be a bit more pedestrian than the results of creative interpreters, for then at least the author can publicly assume responsibility for the presented material.

Authors and interpreters have found themselves in agreement on the question often posed in these last years of inner and outer meaning, the question of opera's essential basic principle. Gone is a belief in opera's self-contained, naive existence—still possible in the case of Verdi and Puccini, though no longer for Wagner. Given the absence of any dynamic force such as Wagner's, the previously suppressed element of disbelief became itself the engine of continued existence and the notion of transparent and self-ironizing play became the governing thought in both opera's production and its composition. As such, opera was no longer taken seriously. Representation no longer attempted to present the represented as something real and so to achieve completeness of illusion; rather, the only thing to remain real was the fact of the representation (not what it represented); the unequivocal, tangible fact of a performance as opposed to the content of that performance. Interestingly, this new perspective led to two diametrically opposed viewpoints, which intersect in a surprising way. The emphasis on the "playful" in opera hearkened back to the pre-Classical era, to the Rococo and the Baroque. Romantic opera had sought an increasingly convincing illusion through the improvement of technical apparatuses on the proscenium stage, until the darkening of the house and the sinking of the orchestra in Wagner's Festspielhaus seemed to create a magical reality out of the events onstage. But now opera accentuated the illusion-destroying elements featured in Baroque theater with its visible lighting fixtures, its bright house, and its orchestra playing visibly either in front of or on the stage. The ideological superstructure of the play was increasingly repressed by the notion that the play was an end in itself. The conceptual content took a backseat to staging...


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pp. 126-132
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