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  • The Future of Opera
  • Bernd Alois Zimmermann
    Translated by Elaine R. Fitz Gibbon (bio) and Emily Richmond Pollock (bio)

Some Thoughts on the Necessary Creation of a New Idea of Opera as Theater of the Future

It is generally considered to be true that the form of opera known as absolute music theater first came into being through Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. This is only conditionally true. Closer examination reveals that Wagner’s Tristan, which one can justifiably describe as the point of origin for that which much later, branded, as ‘new music,’ aroused the displeasure of so many–who were certainly not so annoyed by the aforementioned work [that is, by Tristan]: Wagner, especially in Tristan, clearly used forms of absolute music to such an extent that one can characterize the work, in terms of its formal features, as a colossally expanded three-movement vocal symphony.

It became evident no later than Tristan—if one sets aside the operatic creations of Mozart, which occupy an exceptional place in the history of opera, comparable to no [End Page 144] other and never again to be attained—that in the degree to which dramatic action reached an identification with the forms of absolute music, these dramatic events were only then able to unfold simultaneously to their highest effect and deepest expression. In this sense, Berg in Wozzeck realized and, in a way, expressly called by name that which Wagner had already demonstrated: forms of absolute music in opera; though admittedly with the not insignificant difference that Bergmade use of the stylistic and compositional materials of the so-called “Viennese School.” To exaggerate: when seen apart from their singular importance as examples of modern opera, both Wozzeck and Moses und Aron belong, though in different ways, to that group of works that mark the final influences of the Wagnerian music drama. Even Verdi, as Luigi Dallapiccola was able to demonstrate, used forms of absolute music in his works, a fact that deserves far more attention, considering the unjust preference for the differences over the similarities between the two greats of nineteenth-century music theater.

Now when I speak of Strauss, it is less for his importance among the successors to Wagner than because of one work that sidesteps this line of succession in noteworthy ways with regard to its form: I refer to Ariadne auf Naxos.

In this work, Strauss (or should one say: Hugo von Hofmannsthal?) in certain ways anticipated for opera that which would later be referred to in literature as “theater of the absurd,” and which through Jarry’s Ubu Roi found such a phenomenal forerunner. The robustness with which Strauss knew to eliminate all that flowed from his typical stylistic realm allowed for the idea, at the time quite bold, of the simultaneous use of completely unrelated genres of opera to come into maturity, but which, excepting the “prologue,” did not threaten the possible consequence of absolute and mutual loss of identity at this moment of fusion.

It is curious that, with this work, Strauss provided one of the most remarkable opportunities to depart from the world of the Wagnerian music drama: an opportunity, however, that apparently did not lead to further and productive considerations of form.

From a completely different angle a new idea of form developed, once again a so-called “hybrid form”: here I am thinking of Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sébastien. It could be considered one of the greatest tragedies in the history of music theater that because of a conservative disposition toward the contemporary on the part of the librettist D’Annunzio,1 the possibility of a new form of absolute music was lost: the work remained an anomaly, at least initially. It remains astounding that Debussy’s genius did not deem the aforementioned possibility, an even more decisive turn away from Wagner than in Pelléas et Mélisande, worthy of further pursuit. Although Ariadne and Le martyre remained aberrations, the emergence from the narrow realm of opera, even of music theater, is significant; we will see later to what end.

If one remembers that opera was first created with...


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