A Mahler Opera? Not Such a Stretch, Actually

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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)