A Mahler Opera? Not Such a Stretch, Actually

Reflecting on the composer, 100 years after his death

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 - 09:38 AM

If you have a memory that works as mine does, you might forget a name or a face of someone you met last night but, when it comes to dates, my brain functions like a search engine to rival Google. When I noticed that today is May 18, some names came to mind. Gustav Mahler died one hundred years ago today. Pope John Paul II was born on this day, one day after Birgit Nilsson, which is always a cause for celebration, and one day before Malcolm X. Add the word “opera” to this group and, click, click, click, we are off to the races faster than Grane, Brünnhilde’s horse.

In addition to being a composer who did most of his writing on summer vacations in Austria and what is now the Alto Adige in Italy, Mahler was a marvelous conductor who ran the Vienna State Opera from 1897 to 1907, when exhaustion, internal politics and anti-Semitism drove him from the theater. Vienna’s loss was New York’s gain.

Mahler made his Metropolitan Opera conducting debut on January 1, 1908 with Tristan und Isolde. Heinrich Knote and Olive Fremstad sang the title roles and Louise Homer was Brangäne. Richard Aldrich, in the New York Times, wrote:

“Most striking was the firm hand with which he kept the volume of orchestral sound controlled and subordinated to the voices. These were never overwhelmed; the balance was never lost, and they were allowed to keep their place above the orchestra and to blend with it always in their rightful place. And yet the score was revealed in all its complex beauty, with its strands of interwoven melody always clearly disposed and united with an exquisite sense of proportion and an unerring sense of the larger values.”

His second opera was Don Giovanni on January 23, 1908, which he conducted in repertory with Tristan. It had a Golden Age cast, including Emma Eames (Donna Anna), Johanna Gadski (Donna Elvira), Marcella Sembrich (Zerlina), Antonio Scotti (Don Giovanni) and Fyodor Chaliapin (Leporello). Here is some of the Times report:

“Much was expected of Mr. Mahler's direction of the performance, which he controlled and dominated with results that were in many ways admirable. The most significant feature of it was in the matter of tempi, which in several places differed from what lovers of Mozart's masterpiece here are accustomed to. Some of his tempos were hastened, some where kept back; thus, in the duet between Don Giovanni and Zerlina, the ‘la ci darem’ was quicker that it is usually taken, and the succeeding ‘Andiamo’ much slower-and the result in this case as in some others, did not carry conviction.

He presented the opera in two acts, as the composer wrote it, instead of dividing it into four, as is usually done. But this required some noisy scene shifting in the back that sometimes wrought injury to the music that was going on in front...

Mr. Mahler himself played the accompaniments of the secco recitatives as the conductor was expected to do in Mozart's own day. For this purpose he had an attachment to the pianoforte that gave a somewhat exaggerated imitation of the tone of the harpsichord-an exaggeration perhaps necessary in a house of the size of the Metropolitan. Mr. Mahler used a small orchestra, and there was much that was delightful in the finish and point of the phrasing and elasticity of much of the orchestra's playing.”

I find the musicological specificity of these reviews bracing and compelling and wish there were a place for such writing today. I suspect that many editors in mainstream media would think that  readers' eyes would glaze over, but this commentary tells us how dramatic moments are shaped not only by stage directors but -- must it really be stated? -- by conductors. Most of the dramatic moments in the recent Die Walküre at the Met were created by James Levine and not stage director Robert Lepage.

Just in the winter and spring of 1908, Mahler also conducted productions of Die Walküre, Fidelio and Siegfried. In the 1908-1909 season he repeated Tristan and added Le Nozze di Figaro and the Met premiere of The Bartered Bride. On January 10, 1909 he collaborated with Arturo Toscanini at a concert benefiting victims the devastating earthquake in Messina, Sicily. His Met career ended on March 23, 1910, with the fourth performance of the American premiere production of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades.

Mahler also conducted frequently, and brilliantly, at the New York Philharmonic, contributing significantly to that orchestra’s musical DNA and no doubt influencing Leonard Bernstein, who was Mahler’s chief musical advocate in the second half of the 20th century. When Mahler’s heart disease, from which he had long suffered, intensified, he returned to Austria in the winter of 1911 and died in Vienna.

The Mahler Opera You May Not Know

Mahler’s life might make an excellent subject for an opera. In an indirect way, it already has. Let me explain. The creatively blocked author Thomas Mann had gone to Venice in 1911, the year of Mahler’s death, in an attempt to find inspiration. Mann admired Mahler’s music and, in creating the protagonist in his novella Death in Venice, was inspired by the name and appearance of the composer:

“Gustav von Aschenbach was of a somewhat less than medium height, dark, and clean-shaven. The head seemed a bit too large for the almost dainty physique. The hair brushed back, was thin at the crown but very thick and gray at the temples and framed a high, rugged, scarred-looking forehead. The gold frame of the rimless spectacles cut into the root of a strong, nobly aquiline nose: The mouth was large—now slack, now suddenly narrow and tight—the cheeks sunken and furrowed, the well-shaped chin slightly cleft.”

In 1970, the great Italian film and opera director Luchino Visconti produced an emotionally gripping if overwrought cinematic version of the novel, starring Dirk Bogarde as Aschenbach. The actor was dressed and made up to look somewhat like Mahler, and the composer’s music was a major character in the film, especially the adagietto from the Fifth Symphony.

Benjamin Britten had read the Mann novella but did not see the film when he began writing an opera version of Death in Venice in 1971. Britten, who was homosexual, surely responded to that story line in the novella, but there was so much more. The work is about creativity, beauty, the passage of time and, when we are fortunate, how that which is essential and important crystallizes in our minds while the rest slips away.

Notice how Britten, through Aschenbach, addresses the temptation and necessity of beauty.

Now listen to Aschenbach’s final aria. Britten, like Mahler, was dying of heart disease and may well have sensed that this might be his valedictory work. And it was.

Pope John Paul II, with his eventful life, charisma and strong-minded and divisive views, would make a great and complex subject for an opera as long as the composer and librettist do not beatify and sanctify him. Leave that to the Church!

Malcolm X As Operatic Subject

The life of Malcolm X is very much operaworthy. Spike Lee made a superb film about this notable American and there is a major new biography by Manning Marable that I am just getting into. In fact, there already is an opera. X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X by Anthony Davis premiered at the New York City Opera in 1986. It had a couple of weak moments and critic Donal Henahan had mixed feelings in the New York Times but I found a great deal to admire.

The opera was staged by Oakland Opera Theater in 2006 and an abridged version was done in May 2010 by City Opera at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. I was sorry to have missed it. Twenty-five years on from its premiere, I think this opera is ready for a major production. Just a bit of tightening and editing of the text will strengthen the work dramatically. Audiences and singers have changed, and so has Malcolm’s stature. He is now seen as a much more mature and complex figure, rather than one who seemed enraged and threatening to many people.

Think of famous figures born on your birthday and decide which one’s life story is best suited for an opera. Mine has Fred Astaire, who is my favorite but not necessarily right for an opera. His life was his work and he did it with such grace that there is almost nothing to build an opera on. Also on this birthday were John Wilkes Booth (actor and assassin of Abraham Lincoln) and Mark David Chapman (the man who killed John Lennon). Stephen Sondheim understood the dramatic value of these characters and wrote a dark, excellent musical called Assassins.

Also born on my birthday were Fats Domino, punk rocker Sid Vicious, film producer David O. Selznick, comedienne Nancy Walker and composers Dmitri Tiomkin and Milton Babbitt, the latter of whom might have written a fascinating opera (libretto by me) called Sid and Nancy -- about Sid Vicious and Nancy Walker. Click, click, click.

Photo credit: Sidney Outlaw and Marsha Thompson from the X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (New York City Opera)


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Comments [7]

Cruz from San Francisco

My birthday choices: Leonardo da Vinci or Thomas Jefferson? Either would make an interesting opera, I think, provided the focus were brought down to a few telling episodes or to a certain issue or theme. Biographical operas that try to tell a person's entire life aren't successful very often due to too much plot and little time for emotion or reflection, in my experience. Maybe there could be a way to tie the 2 men together through their inventions ...

May. 25 2011 03:04 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON. NJ

Few geniuses have had more obstacles placed in their way to accomplish their "mission" in life. Mendelssohn, Mahler and Wagner had to renounce their Jewish faith.
Yes, Wagner's actual father was Ludwig Geyer, a Jewish professional oil painter, actor, poet, composer and tenor. While Wagner's own official father, Friedrich, was a stage door Johnnie, Geyer, a close friend of the family, who developed a special affinity for Johanna, actually fathered and lovingly supported the family upon the death of Wahner's official father a month after Richard's birth. Wagner's mother, Johanna, took the name of Geyer for her prodigy son, marrying Geyer nine months after Friedrich's death.
At age 13, Richard lost his champion Geyer, who died prematurely. Constantly aware of the "albatross around his neck" that her son would suffer in anti-Semitic Germany, particularly in Leipzig, by his maintaining the Jewish name of Geyer, she
re-named Richard WAGNER, no longer Geyer.

May. 20 2011 02:52 PM

Another evocative piece, Fred..... I share my birthday with Ringo Starr and I'm sure that the world does not yet need a "Ringo Cycle"- Because of your writing, though, I did come to discover that I also share that birthday (July 7) with Gustav Mahler.... Henceforth, I will look forward to having champagne and listening to Mahler, celebrating his life and work, on his birthday and mine ...thanks for the birthday present (and all of your intriguing work)!-M

May. 18 2011 11:03 PM
Deborah Asimov from New York City

The death of Gustav Mahler one hundred years ago on May 18 is altogether the right occasion to reflect upon the impact of his music and life story upon our own lives. I doubt that there has been a day since the age of 14 that I have not thought about him -- as one does generally only of family members -- as a presence, an influence, a comfort, an impetus. His artistic biography, his marital and familial joys and sorrows, his spiritual universality and the prices he paid to be employed in his professional language of music and conducting...these are universal and timeless to every person. It is sometimes hard to believe that he is not literally alive. For me, he is among the sweetest gifts of this life and has always been the translator, in music, of what I could not myself express in words. Thank you, Fred, for the breadth and depth of this sharing and the occasion to do so ourselves here.

May. 18 2011 08:42 PM
Fred Plotkin

Dear Zulema, Thanks for your comments. As your second one says, "Drei Pintos" is not Mahler's opera. He is one of those "what if?" composers like Grieg. We love him for what he did create but wonder about that which he did not. But as a superb conductor of opera, that was his contribution to the art form. And maybe his knowledge of opera suggested to him that he was not cut out to write one.

May. 18 2011 06:20 PM
Zulema from Bronx, NY

Just a footnote to what I wrote earlier. I should have said that Mahler agreed to finish the opera Von Weber had begun, Di Drei Pintos, though Weber does not come through in the music either. The opening chords are out and out Mahler.

May. 18 2011 04:01 PM
Zulema Seligsohn from Bronx, NY

You went all tangential with the "operas." I have loved Mahler since I discovered him when I was 20, almost 80 years ago. But I am surprised you do not seem to know that he did compose an opera, Die Drei Pintos, which was presented by Lehman College in a full production a year or two ago. It was a comic opera, very well done and sung, but apart from the Overture --or rather the beginning of it--pure Mahler, the rest of the music could have been any other composer's idea of a comic opera.

May. 18 2011 03:03 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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