Spotlight: Why Berg's Wozzeck Matters

Tuesday, April 05, 2011 - 11:54 AM

When, on March 21, the Metropolitan Opera announced that James Levine would reduce his conducting duties for the rest of the season as he recovers from treatment for back ailments, I noticed something that I don’t think has been remarked upon elsewhere. This month, Maestro Levine (to whom I join all opera lovers in wishing a full and speedy recovery) was to have conducted Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Verdi’s Il Trovatore, Berg’s Wozzeck as well as rehearse the new production of Die Walküre that opens on April 22. Apart from the new production, the work that Levine chose to keep was Wozzeck. Score one for Alban Berg.

This is an opera that is universally acclaimed as a 20th century operatic masterpiece and, for some people, it is the greatest opera of the past 100 years. And yet there are many opera lovers who recoil at the mere mention of the work, both for its harsh subject matter as well as their perception of the music as being unlistenable. As to the subject matter, it is no more sordid than Rigoletto. The music does take some work to embrace, but I recall that I had to go to similar effort for Wagner and Strauss.

If you know me, you are aware that Wozzeck has special significance in the Plotkin family. My musician father thought it a masterpiece and heard the first New York performance, a 1951 concert version conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos and starring Mack Harrell in the title role and Eileen Farrell as Marie. On March 5, 1959, my dad and his brother Aaron went to the Metropolitan Opera premiere of the opera, conducted by Karl Bohm and starring Hermann Uhde, Eleanor Steber and, in the crucial role of Marie’s child, one Alice Plotkin, daughter of my Uncle Aaron. Also there were Alice’s mother and brother, who would later name his son Alban in honor of the composer.

It is not because of the family connection that I have a special feeling for Wozzeck. There are many other comparable family connections I have to music that are even stronger. Rather, it is because this really is an amazing opera and it did not surprise me one bit that James Levine would choose to conduct it rather than masterpieces by Wagner or Verdi.

A bit of research revealed that, in his 40 years at the Met, Levine has conducted 44 performances of Das Rheingold between 1987 and 2010, 23 of Il Trovatore (five of which were on tour and none since 1989) while the Wozzeck he leads on April 6 will be his 40th at the Met. What is also notable is that he has returned to this opera much more often than the other two. He first conducted it at the Met in 1974 and returned to it in 1980, 1985, 1989, 1997 (new production), 1999, 2001 and 2005. This means that the 2011 performances will be the 9th time Levine has rehearsed this opera with his great orchestra. With that kind of intimacy and long view, there is no company I would rather hear perform Wozzeck.

In May 1914, Alban Berg attended the first Vienna performance of the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner (1813-1837). The play had its premiere in Munich on November 8, 1913. Why, you might ask, did it take 76 years for it to be produced? The play was incomplete when Büchner suddenly died of typhoid fever at age 24. Fragments of it were published in 1879 (mistakenly called Wozzeck) but it did not take full shape until it was readied for its premiere in Munich. So, although this story of an alienated soldier who murders his mistress after enduring all sorts of indignities was written in the 19th century, it came to represent much of the human estate in Europe shortly before World War One.

As Europe reconfigured after the fall of monarchies and empires, the 1920s saw a new view of the individual in society. Italy had fascism and Spain, Germany and Austria would soon follow suit. Terrible economic reversals made some people quite rich while millions were in abject poverty. The “wealth gap” was immense, in many ways just like the one Americans and others experience today. When a frustrated man acts out and commits a violent crime, he is put to death –perhaps -- and larger society seems inured to the inhumanity that happens every day, everywhere, on both the macro and micro level. Sound familiar?

Berg created a concise, dramatically rich libretto of three acts of 5 scenes each, every one with its own particular atmosphere. Act One is thought of as “Exposition”; Act Two is “Vicissitudes”; Act Three is “Catastrophe.” There are important orchestral passages that are, by turns, tender or mind-blowing in their intensity that are as much a part of the story-telling as the words and singing. The orchestra is a major character here. If I am correct, the instrumentation calls for 113 players, making it even larger than Strauss’s Elektra.

Listen to the Act 3 Orchestral interlude. Powerful and beautiful, not nearly as dissonant as detractors would claim: 

Watch and listen to Hildegard Behrens and Franz Grundheber in Act 3, Scene 2 and 3 from the 1987 Vienna production of the opera, conducted by Claudio Abbado:

You have certainly heard music much more challenging than this. You will find, too, that despite its grim nature, there is great beauty in this music too.

The Met’s 1997 production, keenly directed by Mark Lamos, with ideal sets and costumes by Robert Israel, perfectly evokes the timeless themes in the work. Much of this success is due to the amazing lighting design by James F. Ingalls, some of the best work of its kind you will ever see. There is a great cast up and down, led by the superb Alan Held in the title role and Waltraud Meier as Marie.

Waltraud Meier Receives Unusual Prize

As I began writing this post this morning, special news arrived from Vienna: Waltraud Meier will be the next bearer of the Lotte Lehmann Memorial ring. Lehmann (1888-1976) was a beloved German-born soprano who had an important career in America. She was a wonderful singer and actress, and a great interpreter of roles, words and music. She was a Kunstlerin, which is how in German one would describe a real artist. When she retired she taught at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, where she influenced many young artists, including Marilyn Horne, who carries on the Lehmann tradition of keeping alive the art of the song

The ring was given to Lehmann by the association of artists of the Vienna State Opera in 1955, the year the house reopened after being bombed in World War II. When Lehmann died, she left it to the amazing Austrian dramatic soprano Leonie Rysanek (1926-1998) and it came to be thought of as being in the possession of the reigning interpreter of the great German opera roles. Rysanek left it to German soprano Hildegard Behrens (1937-2009) who, in turn, designated Meier (another German) as the most fitting heir to the ring. On my short list of best performances I have ever been to is Rysanek’s 1996 Salzburg farewell to opera, as Klytemnestra in Elektra with Behrens in the title role. You might as well know now that Rysanek and Behrens are in the highest echelons of my pantheon of artists and I will mention them often. In Waltraud Meier, I believe Behrens picked the most worthy successor for the Lehmann ring.

Waltraud Meier will perform Marie at the Met for the first time. She and James Levine seem to inspire and bring out the best in one another. I described in my first post about divadom what makes Waltraud Meier a diva. A profile in the April 3 New York Times seems to concur. Readers in the New York area might wish to attend a conversation with Waltraud Meier and Alison Ames, presented by the Wagner Society of New York. Space is limited and tickets are going fast. More details (PDF).

Have you seen Wozzeck? What do you think of it? If you have not, and it has been performed where you live, what prevented you from attending?

Meier photo credit: Nomi Baumgartl

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Comments [17] from BOONTON, NJ

The orchestral density and diversity of instrumental colors in WOZZECK is amazing and illustrative of Berg's orchestral vocabulary and wizardry. The strong emotional content of the orchestra's commentary from bawdy to horrific to sentimental literally can be felt in one's bones.


Apr. 16 2011 03:15 PM
kenlane@RichardWagnerMusicDrama from BOONTON, NJ

WOW, what a splendid performance of this landmark opera !!! The singing actors or, better stated actor singers, appear ideal in timbre and musicality, weaving a continuous spell to the audience a sense of what a fly on the wall, being present, but not directly involved, would experience. Hopefully it is being salvaged to future hearings. Having a maestro such as James Levine conducting one of his favorite operas with his loving attention to detail and striving for credibility of the coordinated stage action to the music, is a major achievement.

I am a Wagnerian heldentenor.

I have had the advantage of studying voice with the MET OPERA's Wagnerian superstars baritone Friedrich Schorr, bass Alexander Kipnis, mezzo Margarete Matzenauer, mezzo Karin Branzell and baritone Martial Singher, studying with them at Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music or the New York College of Music, now part of New York University.

I studied privately, at their residences with
the stars of the Met in Caruso's day, Frieda Hempel and Margarete Matzenauer.

I am the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where all the Shakespeare roles are taught to professional actors and the Wagner opera roles to big-voiced singers.

Website:, where from the home page, at Recorded Selections, one may download, free, 37 complete selections from my four concerts at the main hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium, of Carnegie Hall.

Apr. 16 2011 02:58 PM
Suzanne Martiny

My Grandmother, Marguerite Belleri, sang in the Met chorus for 57 years! As a very young child, I remember seeing and hearing Wozzek, and remembered at the end, "hop, hop". It traumatized me and brought the whole meaning of the opera home to me as a child of 9 or 10.

Apr. 15 2011 05:51 PM
Frank Feldman

It matters because it's demonstrably the greatest opera of the twentieth century. There's no need to make a case for it.

Apr. 13 2011 06:57 PM
Jamie from Brooklyn NY

I attended last night's show. It was mesmerizing. Absolutely sublime music, marvelously performed. There are only three more performances this season, and I intend to go back for one of them.

Apr. 07 2011 08:20 PM
The Marschallin from New York

Good news about about Waltraud Meier...Zachary Woolfe's article in the New York Times broke my heart, how can someone's career at the Met be derailed by one performance, post Mr. Bing? I thought these days were over!
Fred, please talk about this kind of thing, and remedies!

Apr. 07 2011 12:51 PM
Laurie from Torino

I'm the wacko listening to Wozzeck, Lulu, and Reimann's Lear on long car rides. But I'll also bring along Götterdämmung and La Boheme ;-)

Apr. 07 2011 02:28 AM
Erica Miner from CA

I played 'Wozzeck' with Maestro Levine many, many times as a Met violinist. His command of the score was truly inspiring, and the experience was mind-boggling.

Apr. 06 2011 10:58 PM
Jeff Boyar from Little Neck, Queens, NY

Dear Fred: Thanks for your article on Wozzek and Berg. I first heard of him through my 6th grade teacher who attempted to introduce us to various forms of "classical" music (I will always be indebted to him). He described "atonality" to us, and, frankly, what I heard at the time did sound kind of strange and nothing like everything else he played for us. So I was prejudiced up until now. Your comments and, especially, your you-tube samples, really did put him and the opera in a whole new light for me. I disagree with some of the commentators who attempt to make a false comparison with Wagner (or whomever). No, you don't go out whistling the arias from Wozzek, and maybe you never go back for a repeat performance. But in exchange, you've experienced a work of art like no other, and, with a modern-day message as a bonus. And as a fan of "tonality" (my favorites are Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, etc.), I can still appreciate this music. Thanks for re-educating me.

Apr. 06 2011 05:48 PM
Earl Hazell

What a contribution this article is. I just learned a great deal. While debuting at Chicago Lyric just a couple of years ago, I chose to attend to their production of LULU--and while I was prepared to hear my theory homework from my Aaron Copland School of Music days at Queens College set arranged for orchestra, I sat surprised and amazed at its beauty and dramatic power. I think we realy do listen to opinions about music more than music itself nowadays; opinions from people who often haven't even heard what is supposedly sourcing their opinions. The 2nd Viennese school doesn't have to be a destination for all of 20th century music for it to be a viable path leading to artistic revelation. I'm not throwing my Verdi CDs away anytime soon, but LULU proved that for me.

I wish I were going to be in New York when this goes up now. I'd see it in a minute.

Bravo, Fred!

Apr. 06 2011 11:08 AM
Stephen Plotkin from Port Washington, NY

Dear Cousin Fred, I’m going to share an anecdote about Wozzeck’s special significance with our family. For the 1959 premiere your dad and I had standing room tickets in the back of the old Met. We got there early to find a good spot to stand. Uncle Ed used our extra time to tell me a bit about the opera and about Alban Berg. Just before the curtain went up he said two more things. First he wanted me to know that while he considered Wozzeck to be a masterpiece, that I may not like it. (I was only 13.) Second, he assured me that during the first intermission we would have no problem finding good seats. He was right about the seats. But Wozzeck I thought was magnificent, as seemingly did those who stayed for all three acts. To this day, I consider that night my most memorable night in a theater, and I’ve attended many operas, concerts and plays since. I, like you, am looking forward the hearing Wozzeck once again at the Met.

Apr. 06 2011 05:36 AM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

When I was very little . . four years old . . I heard a disc of excerpts of Wozzeck sung by Phyllis Curtin. It wasn't that I understood the words . . . or the context of the excerpts within the complete opera, obviously. Yet . .. something there . .. I recall it as a poetic quality . .. held me listening. My mother had already taught me to play piano. When the excerpts were over, I went to the keyboard and made . . admittedly failed . . attempts to pick out a little bit of what I had heard. I remember being fascinated, and wanting to hear it again . . . and thirty seconds later . . doing something utterly immature, like sticking my tongue out at my little sister. When I came to have an informed grasp of the plot, I attended a live performance. Anja Silja as Marie, Jose Van Dam as Wozzeck. Maestro Levine conducting. I came away, simultaneously shattered and exhilirated, certain that my comprehension of what could be achieved inside a theater had been stretched to beyond its previous limits . . and equally certain of being eager to go even beyond that next horizon, but also to again experience Wozzeck, live. I sensed a strong need to attend another performance. It is an opera that, once felt, can never be disentangled from the warp and woof of one's life. Each new worthy performance enriches my insights into the intoxicating, powerful mystery of it.

Apr. 06 2011 12:23 AM
meche from Midtown Manhattan

I truly loathed Wozzeck when I saw it in Santa Fe 10 years ago Fred but I am giving it another chance on the 13th because (as you pointed out) Meier is singing and Levine is conducting. However, I declined to repeat the Santa Fe offering this summer. Twice in one year sounds excessive. BUT, you never can tell. If I am pleasantly surprised at the Met, I am sure I will have NO problem getting a ticket in Santa Fe at the last minute. Reading your blog was helpful.

Apr. 06 2011 12:20 AM
Fred Plotkin

@ Morgan: Yes, Wagner has great sweep (and length). Part of the power of Wozzeck is the emotional wallop Berg delivers so concisely
@Jerry: Why settle for 8 tones when we can have 12? I think that from every era and school in music and art a few great works come forth and are timeless. I can love Wozzeck without embracing the whole 2nd Viennese School
@Michael: from Schoenberg we got Berg. From Wagner we got Wag (Anna Russell)

Apr. 05 2011 11:53 PM
Michael Meltzer

The debate will never end, although it is true that people who find the need to defend a Wagner offering can usually manage it in one paragraph.
It is always fun to remember the N.Y. Times - Olin Downes review of, I think, Lulu, ending with, "Berg studied with Schoenberg, who despite his name, was no more beautiful than his pupil."

Apr. 05 2011 08:25 PM
Jerry Seinfeld from UWS

What's the deal with Wozzeck? It's not my idea of a fun night at the opera. Fred, haven't we learned from the last 30 years of music history that the 12-tone composers have been proven wrong? Adams, Glass, Corigliano, Muhly... all of those composers write in a tonal style. The Second Viennese School strikes me as an abberation rather than a path towards something that audiences would want to hear.

Apr. 05 2011 03:52 PM
Morgan from Manhattan

An excellent post! I am am opera lover and Wozzeck hater! I find the music inaccessible and dissonant. It has always struck me as an academic's (or a cognoscente's) opera, one that needs to be studied to be appreciated. As you point out, Fred, the operas of Wagner also require some advance preparation, but the payoff seems bigger -- from my standpoint, Wagner's operas have a grander sweep and greater resonance than Wozzeck or, for that matter, Lulu. I suspect that many opera lovers do not revisit Wozzeck after their first experience with the work. How many people would want to spend a long, solitary car ride listening to Wozzeck? Are there any arias from Wozzeck that are given in recital?

Apr. 05 2011 02:51 PM

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