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  • Haas's Charlatan1 and the Play of Premonitions
  • Michael Beckerman (bio)

In the late 1930s the Czech Jewish composer Pavel Haas, a student of Leoš Janáček, had a hit on his hands with an opera titled The Charlatan. Set in seventeenth-century Germany, it tells the story of the traveling quack Dr. Pustrpalk and his roving band of brawlers and thieves. The composer described the opera's creation: "In 1934, I was captivated by a subject that came to me. It dealt with the wandering life of a doctor-charlatan of the seventeenth century. I wrote the libretto myself and by 1937 the score of the opera was finished. The vibrant subject of the plot and also the inviting milieu in which the events take place intrigued me such that I went to work with joy and relish."2

The protagonist of the opera is based on the character of one Dr. Eisenbart, an infamous medical faker who was the subject of a 1929 novel by Josef Winckler. Haas, of course, had to disguise his collaboration (a word soon to take on other associations) with Winckler, since the Nuremberg Laws forbade such associations; thus Eisenbart became "Pustrpalk," a minor character from Czech medieval theater.3 While the opera was successfully premiered in Brno in 1938, the Munich Agreement and subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia made further productions impossible, and it was not performed again until 1998.

Haas's tone in the passage above, speaking of an "inviting" milieu and the composer's "joy and relish," suggests something unproblematic and straightforward. It is the view explored in this article, however, that neither the timing nor the subject matter of The Charlatan was a coincidence, that in fact behind the comic touches and folk coloring lurks a series of fundamental questions about the nature of the modern world.

The Opera

The Charlatan as presented by Haas is an ambivalent figure, part Casanova and part camp commandant, a nomadic doctor using the best herbal remedies and "up-to-date" operating procedures, and also a fraud. On one hand he leads his band [End Page 31] of merry men, and on the other has dark confrontations with the priest Jochimus that end up driving him insane. In fact, one of the most brilliant aspects of the opera is the Charlatan's rigorously distanced declamatory (read "Janáckian") musical language. Not until the very end of the opera does the character participate in the surrounding songs that permeate the work.

In fact there are reasons to suppose that the character as conceived by Haas purposely incorporates some of the greatest "actors" to walk the world stage. In the opening scene he appears as Don Giovanni, seducing the beautiful Amaranta, wife of a "professor" (and his wife Rozina plays a role somewhere between Donna Anna and Donna Elvira). He later becomes a kind of Napoleon, a dictator in confrontations with his troupe, and seems to channel Faust in his confrontation with the priest. When Jochimus dies, after an operation the Charlatan believes has been successful, Pustrpalk turns briefly into Hamlet. At the beginning of the opera's final scene, his men refer to him conspicuously as "Don Quixote," because he wanders around as if in a daze. But by the end of the scene the character takes another unexpected turn. The Charlatan removes himself from any kind of dramatic scenario, and the piece morphs into a kind of ballad opera, as verse after verse (eleven or twelve in total, depending on how you count) concern themselves with the Charlatan at his most blatant. It is amusing but also cruel and sadistic, and all of his men alternate with him in singing. Are the balladeers joking? Are they serious practitioners simply letting off steam in the pub, or are they really a blight upon the earth? Here is part of the Charlatan's last testament in my own free translation:

I'm Pustrpalk, a Doc am I,I cure with methods from on high.I teach the blind to walk again;The lame can see no matter when.

A lad I knew drank till he was raw,I punched him hard right in the jaw.From...


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