Opera in the 20th Century

October 20, 2004

October 22: Opera and Jazz

Posted by Charles T. Downey at 9:25 PM | Link to this post

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Ernst Krenek, Jonny Spielt Auf, Lucia Popp, Evelyn Lear, Thomas Stewart, Vienna State Opera, conducted by Heinrich Hollreiser
Ernst Krenek (1900–1991), Jonny Spielt Auf
Premiered at the Leipzig Stadtheater on February 10, 1927. On New Year's Eve in 1925, Krenek saw an American negro review called "Chocolate Kiddies" in Frankfurt, with music by Duke Ellington. Krenek soon wrote the libretto himself for this early "jazz opera." By 1930, it had been shown in 70 different productions around Europe, making it the most often performed opera of the period. Jonny Spielt Auf made Krenek's name, and he lived off the royalties and repeated performances into the 1930s, when the Third Reich's opposition cut into his profits.

Due to Nazi opposition, the premiere of Krenek's later opera, Karl V, about the disintegration of the Austrian empire under Charles V, was canceled at the Vienna Staatsoper in 1934. At that point, Nazi pressure on conductor Clemens Krauss was at its peak. The Nazis hated the black content of Jonny Spielt Auf and called Krenek a Bolshevik and decadent composer in 1938, at the infamous Entartete Musik exhibit in Dusseldorf, along with Hindemith, Schoenberg, Berg, and many others. The opera received its Prague premiere in June 1938, the last opera performed there before German troops invaded.

Although it evokes the devil-may-care sexual attitude of the 1920s and appealed to mass audiences by incorporating jazz and other dance sounds, the opera was a flop at its New York premiere. That was the beginning of the decline, as more and more critics thought its musical style was more appropriate to an operetta. The Nazis seized Krenek's assets, as well as the rights to his royalties, so when he emigrated to the United States, he landed in New York with almost nothing. Krenek taught briefly at Vassar and in Minnesota, before ending up in California.

You can find more information available from the Ernst-Krenek-Institut-Privatstiftung in Krems, Austria.

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George Gershwin (1898–1937), Porgy and Bess, Willard White, Cynthia Haymon, Glyndebourne Opera
George Gershwin, Porgy and Bess
Premiered at the Alvin Theater, New York City, on October 10, 1935. Libretto based on DuBose Heyward (1885–1940), Porgy (novel from 1925, Broadway play with Dorothy Heyward in 1927; read the hypertext edition of the novel, edited by Kendra Hamilton). Gershwin sketched the opera in 1934 and prepared the orchestral score from September 1934 to September 1935. (Gershwin had seen a performance of Krenek's Jonny Spielt Auf in Vienna, part of the 1928 European trip on which he also met Alban Berg.)

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Kurt Weill, Street Scene, English National Opera (1989)
Kurt Weill (1900–1950), Street Scene
Premiered at the Adelphi Theatre, New York, on January 9, 1947. The libretto was adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, produced in 1929, by New York-born Elmer Rice (1892-1967), with additional lyrics by Langston Hughes. The original production ran for 148 performances, leading Weill to remark, "Seventy-five years from now, Street Scene will be remembered as my major work." The opera was the first real successor to Porgy and Bess.

Kurt Weill (born in Dessau, Germany) started a theater revolution with his collaboration with Bertold Brecht on Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), premiered at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, in Berlin, on August 31, 1928. It was an updating of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1720), which had just been given a modern staging in London in 1920, to huge success. Die Dreigroschenoper cannot really be called an opera: it was staged but in a small theater, not an opera house; no member of the original cast was a professional opera singer (the roles are not designed for that sort of voice, and the cast were mostly theater actors who could sing); the instrumentalists were not pit musicians, and most belonged to dance hall bands (2 saxophones, 2 trumpets, trombone, banjo, timpani, harmonium). Weill said at the time that the work "presented us with the opportunity to make 'opera' the subject matter for an evening in the theater." He also said it was "the most consistent reaction to Wagner" and a positive step toward operatic reform. It is important to realize that this premiere took place less than three years after that of Berg's Wozzeck.

Weill then premiered a similar work, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny), on March 9, 1930, in Leipzig. However, in March 1933, Weill fled Germany with his wife, the singer Lotte Lenya, who had sung important roles in both of the works just mentioned. They spent some time in Paris, where Weill completed his Second Symphony and renewed briefly his collaboration with Brecht for Die sieben Tods√ľnden, a "ballet with singing" for George Balanchine's troupe "Les Ballets 1933." In September 1935, Weill went to America with Lenya (although they later divorced), to oversee Max Reinhardt's production of Franz Werfel's biblical epic Der Weg der Verheissung, for which Weill had written an extensive oratorio-like score. After many delays, the work was finally staged in 1937 but in truncated form as The Eternal Road. Weill's first hit in the U.S. was Lady in the Dark, a musical play about psychoanalysis by Moss Hart, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, his return to the theater after his brother's death in 1937. Marc Blitzstein made an English translation of The Threepenny Opera that had great success. Weill had a huge influence through his Broadway musicals and became the most challenging figure on that scene before Sondheim (he worked with Lerner and Ira Gershwin).

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