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Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers three trends evident in recent research on opera in the period 1900–1945. Scholars tend to situate the genre, as well as individual works and composers, in relation to Wagner’s influence; they challenge and expand received wisdom about modernism, either admitting previously marginalized repertoire to that canon or proposing multiple modernisms; and they pursue nuanced analyses of the relationship between opera and Nazi/Fascist regimes. Precisely how one might define opera in a period of such great experimentation is also discussed. Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny is presented as a case study in which all of these approaches are fruitful.

Keywords: Wagner, modernism, opera, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Nazism, Fascism

Wagner, Modernism, and Politics

Wagner, modernism, politics: these are the tangled red threads running through the labyrinth of recent scholarship devoted to opera in the period 1900–1945. Operas are analyzed as responses to the continuing and often overwhelming presence of Richard Wagner; as various incarnations of modernism or resistance to it; and as cultural products ineluctably linked to the politics of their day. Some scholars expand the notion of modernism, challenging what they perceive as a narrative of modernist hegemony, acknowledging and legitimizing instead the works of composers who hewed more closely to the conventions they had inherited from their respective traditions. Still others note the importance of the revival of early opera, whose musico-dramatic style was so alien to twentieth-century audiences that it might as well have been brand new (Rameau in France, Handel in Germany, Monteverdi in Italy). This wide range of new, and seemingly new, works commingled with the canon to produce an operatic culture virtually unparalleled in its variety. Perhaps most significant, these forty-five years are defined by war, authoritarian regimes, and the nearly unfathomable destruction they wrought: economic crises, dislocation, persecution, and loss of life. Such political events and power structures influenced every aspect of daily life, including the quantity, style, performance, and reception of opera. In many cases, the choices musicians made under those dire circumstances directly determined responses to their work and posthumous reputations.

The three themes of Wagner, modernism, and politics are relevant to the entire period, but each one corresponds most strongly to a particular chronological subunit, and this chapter is divided accordingly: Wagner figures most prominently between 1900–ca. 1920 (end of World War I, demise of the Russian Empire and emergence of the Soviet Union); modernism is the burning question ca. 1920–1933 (the period between the end of World War I and the rise of Hitler, during which time Mussolini and Stalin came to power in their respective countries); and politics defines the period 1933–1945 (p. 1050) (increasing unrest followed by hostilities in 1937, declaration of World War II in 1939). Finally, it will come as no surprise that the specter of nationalism looms throughout.

Defining Opera after 1900

First, however, it is worth considering a fundamental question of definition: What, precisely, is opera in this period? How does one tell an opera from a Lehrstück from the myriad other music-theater permutations that emerged at this time? Nigel Simeone’s “A Chronology of Twentieth-Century Opera Premieres” provides a useful point of departure (Simeone 2005). His list features many works explicitly identified by their composers as some kind of opera: Karol Szymanowski’s Król Roger is an “opera in three acts,” as is Aarre Merikanto’s Juha; Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers is a “lyrical drama;” Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts is an “opera to be sung.” A composer invokes a recognizable genre to link his or her work to an extant operatic tradition, and this was more common than one might expect, given the scholarly emphasis on innovation in this period (Calico 2008:19). Simeone’s list also includes a large number of pieces explicitly identified by their composers as something other than opera, however: Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel and Paul Hindemith’s Lehrstück, two works whose very titles contain generic designations that identify them as non-, if not anti-, operas; and Arthur Honegger’s Le roi David, incidental music for a play that was later rescored as a psaume symphonique. Igor Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat is there, despite the fact that it lacks both singing and an actual genre designation (described by its composer simply as “to be read, played, and danced”), while his Pulcinella, a “ballet with song,” is not.

Simeone’s assimilation of non-operas into his opera list may have been determined by performance and reception conventions that have accrued to the works over time, but the hybridization and experimentation that gave rise to alternative genres reveal much about the state of opera in the first half of the twentieth century. Numerous social and stylistic conventions once considered inviolable were challenged, including venue, medium, form, duration, and style (Sheppard 2001). Ever since the demise of private noble theaters, opera had been ensconced in the opera house, but radio operas, such as Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief or Bohuslav Martinů’s Veselohra na mostě (Comedy on the Bridge), circumvented the standard venue and its socioeconomic infrastructure. Radio was widely viewed as a democratizing medium, so these works defied the audience class-structure of staged opera as well as its assumed theatricality.

Canonical operas tended to consist of two to five acts, suggesting conventions of dramaturgy and of intermission socializing; the new prevalence of one-acts signals reconsideration of both aspects, and of the assumption that a work must achieve a minimal critical mass of duration before it can be designated as an opera. One-acts appealed especially to German composers (Hindemith wrote four, Ernst Krenek five, and Richard Strauss and Weill six each), but not exclusively; examples can be found across the spectrum of musical and dramatic styles, including Joseph-Maurice Ravel’s (p. 1051) L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortilèges, Béla Bartók’s A Kékszakállú herceg vára (Bluebeard’s Castle), Luigi Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero, and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Nos (The Nose), to cite just a few (Kirsch and Döhring 1991). Some freestanding one-acts are so abbreviated as to be miniatures: Arnold Schoenberg’s Die glückliche Hand, a “drama with music,” lasts about twenty minutes and features minimal singing, even within that short duration; Hindemith’s Hin und zurück is an “operatic sketch” twelve minutes in length; Slavko Osterc’s Salome is a “minute opera parody” that clocks in at eleven. Richard Wagner’s Ring (and, later, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Licht) notwithstanding, most operas had existed as discrete pieces, but the penchant for one-acts also gave rise to brief works in sets (Gian Francesco Malipiero’s Sette canzoni, Darius Milhaud’s three Opéra-Minutes). And regardless of duration, many featured closed arias in the style of number opera, frequently with spoken dialogue between songs (Stravinsky’s Mavra, Weill’s Dreigroschenoper) instead of the continuous, large-scale forms favored by the late Romantics. Finally, even a kind of “art-music” style could no longer be taken for granted as an essential characteristic, as twentieth-century vernaculars became part of opera’s vocabulary (George Antheil’s Transatlantic, Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess).


So much genre-bending, and the attendant challenges to conventions of venue, medium, form, scope and style, often stemmed from composers’ efforts to cope with Wagner. Compositional responses to his music and aesthetic principles ran the gamut: emulation, adaptation, assimilation, rejection, and negation—but there was no escaping him altogether (Deathridge 2005). Even the normative opera-going experience was the one Wagner had endorsed: darkened house, humble silence, theatricality. Lawrence Kramer observes that “Wagner becomes both central and radically extrinsic to the institution of Opera, both its primary model and its primary antagonist, its authentic self, beyond emulation, and its monstrous Other” (Kramer 2004: 16). Chromatic harmony, extended forms, and endless melody signaled allegiance to Wagner/Opera, as might the appropriate venue (opera house) and audience (knowledgeable and reverent); the inverse was also true, in that the absence of these features signaled resistance to, even outright defiance of, Wagner/Opera. The most vehement rejection of Wagner as the “monstrous Other” came from Ferruccio Busoni, whose “new classicality” was demonstrated in his operas (Die Brautwahl, Arlecchino, Turandot, Doktor Faustus) and inspired his student Weill to conduct his own operatic experiments in the 1920s (Riethmüller and Shin 2004). At the opposite end of the spectrum was Hans Pfitzner’s idealization of Wagner, which reached its apex in Palestrina, a three-act musikalische Legende designed to demonstrate the sustained superiority of German culture, even under the duress of wartime (Taylor-Jay 2004). Most works occupied a kind of middle, synthetic ground. Franz Schreker’s operas ran the gamut (p. 1052) from Wagner-inspired (Der Schatzgräber) to a highly individual, heady mix of timbre, nonfunctional harmony, and sexuality (Der ferne Klang), and staked his claim to a different modernism (Hailey 2002). Still less clear is the place of Strauss’s formidable oeuvre, particularly Salome and Elektra, in which one can trace both the outermost trajectory of Wagnerian harmony and instrumentation as well as modernism (Steinberg 2006: 633–634). Bryan Gilliam argues that Strauss’s fifteen operas are the result of “his initial engagement with the various Wagnerisms of his day and his ultimate rejection of all of them beyond musical technique” (Gilliam 2014: 17).

Anxiety over Wagner’s influence was certainly not limited to Germany, and scholars often view developments in other operatic traditions by the extent to which Wagner had made inroads into them. Concerns about German invasion via his music informed the composition of new operas, discourse about national opera traditions, and even high politics in other countries, and perhaps nowhere more so than in France (Fauser and Schwartz 1999; Huebner 2006). Pro- and anti-Wagner factions that coalesced after the Franco-Prussian War persisted past the fin de siècle, and emerged with renewed fervor after World War I. In France, Wagner stood in for Opera as well as for Germany. Efforts to keep his operas off the stage during World War I came to naught because he was too popular, and in the 1920s d’Indy defended him with the claim that the German had “‘saved’ French music from the Jews, who had invaded 19th-century opera, rerouting it from its own national tradition” (see d’Indy 1930: 13 and Fulcher 2005: 135). Scholars have parsed Debussy’s complex engagement with Wagner, as well as the musical and political significance of applying the adjective “Wagnerian” to Pelléas et Mélisande (Pasler 1987; Kelly 2008).

Wagner may have been less politically charged in Italy than in Germany and France, but he was no less present. Allan Mallach describes some works of Pietro Mascagni, Italo Montemezzi, and Riccardo Zandonai as “Tristan’s Children” (Mallach 2007: 311). More crucially for consideration of the canon, Julian Budden asserts that “Wagner’s best Italian pupil was Puccini” (Budden 1987: 332). Alexandra Wilson has shown that domestic reception of Puccini’s operas was filtered through contemporaneous debates over Wagner, and despite “certain aspects of his compositional process [that] bear a Wagnerian influence,” these were not enough to sway pro-Wagner critics (Wilson 2007: 45; 40–46 passim). Among those technical devices was a sophisticated use of motifs. Puccini was “alone among his Italian contemporaries” in taking the recurring motif as the primary dramatic and musical structuring device, although he never allowed it to upstage the primacy of the voice (Budden 2005: 478).

Given the German Wagner’s status as stand-in for all of Opera, it is perhaps inevitable that he also figures in recent research that reconsiders the use of “nationalism” as a category. Such categorization can be a facile means of marginalizing non–Italian-French-German operas. Richard Taruskin has noted that “however admiringly it is apparently done, casting a composer as a ‘nationalist’ is preeminently a means of exclusion from the critical and academic canon (though not, obviously, from the performing repertoire)” (Taruskin 2000: 48). Much new research seeks to admit contemporaneous Russian, Hungarian, and Czech opera into the larger continental discourse, (p. 1053) and, as has been shown, engagement with Wagner was central to that operatic conversation. Brian S. Locke takes this approach in his work on a group of younger Czech composers—Otakar Ostrčil, Vítĕzslav Novák, and Josef Foerster—who aligned themselves with musicologist Zdenĕk Nejedlý in opposition to the Wagnerism then being taught at the Prague Conservatory (Locke 2006). Locke does not attempt to legitimize Czech opera by assimilating it into or measuring it against the Western operatic canon; instead, he identifies significant points of contact, overlap, and rejection.


The dearth of scholarship that treats modernist opera as a specific subgenre is surprising. After all, opera “played a vital role in the birth of musical modernity” (consider Erwartung, Wozzeck, Pelléas et Mélisande, and Bluebeard’s Castle), even if the genre is “barely mentioned” in general accounts of musical modernism (Timms 2009: 23). In a rare attempt to define modernist opera, historian Michael P. Steinberg writes that it “seeks emancipation from the hold of Wagner, Wagnerism, and its nationalist mythology” (Steinberg 2006: 632). The rejection of Wagner as a definitive feature of most modernisms is standard, but for Steinberg modernist opera does not just reject German nationalism; it defies nationalist categorization altogether. He situates modernist opera as a “subcategory of fin de siècle European modernism” that ended in 1933 (for reasons that will be discussed in the next section on politics):

Operatic modernism fits within a paradigm widespread in the history of modernism but not in the history of opera. The suggestion is that operatic modernism after Wagner might be understood as postnational rather than national—in other words, that the desire for an authentically French, Hungarian, or Czech opera not be understood to mimic the desires and claims of (German) music drama or musical-dramatic nationalism. Though the operas of Béla Bartók, Antonín Dvořák, and—most impressively and systematically in recent years—Leoš Janáček have entered the canon and the repertory of opera houses, they still tend to inspire and submit to rhetoric of the national, the folk, and the ethnic.

(Steinberg 2006: 632)

Likewise, historian Lawrence Wolff dismisses “nationalist” as an inaccurate descriptor for Janáček’s modernist operas, but he does not favor a post-national view. Instead, Wolff considers the multiple, overlapping identities brought to bear on the citizens of the reconfigured region known as Central Europe after World War I (local, municipal, regional, provincial, and imperial) and privileges the provincial Moravian over the national when assessing Janáček’s modernism:

Yet, though modernism in some spheres exemplified cosmopolitan transnational values, the fundamental provincialism of Moravia was, by definition, anything but cosmopolitan, contrasting with nationalism in a different fashion. Janáček’s operas (p. 1054) suggest that modernism had a prenational as well as a postnational component: provincialism could be as modernist as cosmopolitanism was.

(Wolff 2006: 690)

Derek Katz also takes a nuanced view of overlapping identities, finding varying degrees of synthesis and emphasis across Janáček’s late operas (Katz 2009).

Despite Steinberg’s identification of post-nationalism as a feature of modernist opera, this section nevertheless groups the works by language and country of origin so that the approach is consistent throughout the chapter. This treatment is also consistent with the manner in which most opera scholars pursue their work, which reflects their training as much as their personal predilections. There remains no shortage of literature on German modernist opera, but it is worth remembering that the German-language opera stage was virtually dominated by the works of Strauss, the “ambivalent modernist” (Robinson 2002). In the 1910s and 1920s, Schreker, Pfitzner, Korngold, and Zemlinsky enjoyed tremendous success with German operas as well. Their work has received increased scholarly attention in recent years as a pluralist notion of modernism has emerged, thereby expanding the canon of works that qualify as modernist and more accurately reflecting the full range of operatic culture in the period (Hailey 2002). Taylor-Jay refutes the notion that a single, monolithic modernism was uncontested at the time, and reminds that its dominance was not inevitable: “While the Schoenbergian and Adornian army may have won the battle, it was not the only participant” (Taylor-Jay 2004: 22). She interprets the artist-operas of Pfitzner, Krenek, and Hindemith as alternatives to, rather than different strands of, modernism.

Scholars of Italian modernist opera have tended to focus on the postwar period and the extraordinary works of Sylvano Bussotti, Luigi Dallapiccola, and Luigi Nono. Among those who focus on the early twentieth century, Berghaus has shown that Futurism, which repudiated operatic verismo in Francesco Pratella’s definitive Manifesto dei musicisti futuristi of 1911, and verismo had more in common than advocates of either would have admitted (Berghaus 1998); this relationship may bear comparison to that which German modernists had with Wagner. The next generation, led by Ildebrando Pizzetti, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Franco Alfano, Ottorino Respighi, and Alfredo Casella, ran the stylistic and political gamut, as will be discussed in the section on politics below. Of these, Malipiero and Casella are most often cited as exhibiting modernist tendencies (Waterhouse 1994, 1999). Generally speaking, however, all is overshadowed by Puccini. The title Puccini’s ‘Turandot’: The End of the Great Tradition (Ashbrook and Powers 1991) implies that Turandot was not just the end of a particular style but the end of Italian opera sui generis, while Mallach’s The Autumn of Italian Opera: From Verismo to Modernism 1890–1915 (2007) portrays a genre in decline nearly a decade before Puccini’s death prevented his completion of Turandot. As part of the movement toward modernist pluralities, however, a major reconsideration of Puccini as modernist is underway, and that may have repercussions for all the Italian composers cited above. In The Puccini Problem, Wilson recounts the controversies that surrounded the composer in his own day, stemming primarily from efforts to reconcile Italian-ness with some kind of modernity. Her agenda is to reconstruct the social and political contexts in which Puccini was (p. 1055) received in his own day and to situate him as “a profoundly modern figure” rather than “an insignificant throwback to the nineteenth century” (Wilson 2007: 7).

If the literature on Italian opera in this period is dominated by Puccini’s oeuvre, the literature on French opera is dominated by a single opera: Debussy’s symbolist Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), the first and quintessential French modernist opera. Barbara Kelly traces the process whereby Pelléas—a highly unusual, “potentially isolated” work—had come to stand in for and be definitive of French music by the time the composer died in 1918 (Kelly 2008: 58). Jann Pasler’s social history of the Apaches, that group of artists, writers, and musicians who bonded over the premiere of Pelléas and found common cause in its defense, is a valuable contribution to our understanding of these controversies and their place in larger Parisian society (Pasler 2007). There is little sense that opera played a role in French musical modernism otherwise; consider the title of an essay by sociologist Antoine Hennion: “Rewriting History from the Losers’ Point of View: French Grand Opera and Modernity” (Hennion 2007). The decade after Pelléas produced just a handful of operas generally construed as modernist. Paul Dukas followed Debussy’s lead with his own symbolist opera, Ariane et Barb-bleue, based on a Maeterlinck libretto, and Ravel’s L’heure espagnole was a modernist parody of Wagnerian and symbolist excess in the form of an opera buffa (Huebner 2006). The notion of Fauré as modernist is given credence in a study of his single completed opera, Pénélope (Sobaskie 2003).

Stravinsky’s conte lyrique, Le rossignol, premiered in Paris in 1914, and was a harbinger of things to come in that city; its brief, three-act, hybrid theatricality (pantomime-ballet-pageant) reflects the composer’s ambivalence about the operatic genre and presages the variety of French music theater experimentation to come after World War I, often in league with leading cultural figures such as Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Claudel. Darius Milhaud wrote everything from miniature chamber operas, as in the cycle of three ten-minute operas known as Opéra-Minutes, to the outsized, ambitious Christophe Colomb in two acts with twenty-seven scenes (Kelly 2003). W. Anthony Sheppard’s work on French manifestations of “total theater” and resistance to it, as well as the role of exoticism in this repertoire, is particularly revealing (Sheppard 2001). More recently, Jane Fulcher has posited the category of the French “opera of ideas” as a phenomenon of the 1920s, asserting that “this apparently insignificant decade in French opera is indeed seminal in terms of the genre’s changing function, its evolving intellectual and political role” (Fulcher 2005: 115).


Italian Fascism and German Nazism are usually described as two manifestations of Fascism, ideologies that privilege nation and/or race above the individual and are characterized by a “centralized, autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition” (Merriam Webster). Steinberg has noted the unusual relationship between opera and these two (p. 1056) states (“In a still underexplored historical case of a dog that did not bark, opera did not serve these regimes,” according to Steinberg 2006: 634–635), but the regimes did police and censor operas, their artists and institutions. Jeremy Tambling traces the link between opera and what he calls “the culture of Fascism” deep into the nineteenth century, especially (but not exclusively) to Wagnerism, and posits Fascism as the dark side of modernity (Tambling 1996). Where Tambling’s argument is abstract and philosophical, Erik Levi focuses on the bureaucratic apparatuses and new operas composed under the Fascist regimes in Italy (1922–1945 under Mussolini) and Germany (1933–1945 under Hitler), but does not consider the occupied territories or the appropriation of extant opera for political purposes (Levi 1996). Opera under Italian Fascism has received comparatively little scholarly attention. Documented ties to Il Duce appear to have affected the study of operas by Respighi, Casella, Alfano, and Mascagni, although the collection Italian Music during the Fascist Period (Illiano 2004) represents first steps toward addressing that lacuna. Luigi Dallapiccola’s Italianate, lyrical brand of dodecaphony appeals to the operatically inclined, while his retreat from Fascism makes him more palatable than some of his contemporaries. Ben Earle’s analysis of Dallapiccola’s masterpiece Il prigioniero in its original Cold War context, however, challenges facile readings of this work, standard since the 1950s, as mere twelve-tone music of commitment (Earle 2007).

While Puccini’s Turandot is frequently invoked to demarcate the end of an era, some interpret it less as opera’s apotheosis than its capitulation: Turandot delivers opera to spectacle, and this “is also its delivery to fascism, to its aesthetic of power through spectacle.” They are particularly critical of its brutal, forced happy ending. “In this sense, the opera Turandot, as distinct from the intentions of its creators […] and its producers […] emerges as a fascist work” (Steinberg and Stewart-Steinberg 2007: 276). A tipping point was reached in 1934 when Respighi, Zandonai, Pizzetti, and other conservatives repudiated the modernism of Casella and Malipiero by publicly calling for a revival of the nineteenth-century tradition. Levi notes that the opera scene in Mussolini’s Italy was not nearly as isolationist as that in contemporary Germany, however; works by Bartók, Hindemith, Berg, and Stravinsky were staged in Italy “long after their work had been proscribed by the Nazis” (Levi 1996: 273).

Opera during the Third Reich tends to elicit attempts to identify “Nazi Music,” meaning music that “upheld the tenets of a central ideology and were artistically inferior” (Potter 2005b: 439–440). Such efforts are futile because the regime had no consistent aesthetic policy for opera or any other music, and was far more interested in the reach of popular entertainment such as operetta and radio (Heldt 2005: 158). Furthermore, “staging the Nazi movement itself, common in film and drama, was frowned upon in opera”; instead, newly composed operas tended to be based on folk tales, fairy tales, and classic subjects (Heldt 2005: 159). In terms of acceptable musical style, the most consistent feature was inconsistency. Despite the crusade against Degenerate Music there were “stark inconsistencies between the pronouncements against ‘degeneracy’ and the new operatic works that thrived—and even won Hitler’s praise—in the Third Reich, despite their atonal and jazz-inspired scores that were noticeably reminiscent of works (p. 1057) by Schoenberg, Krenek, and Weill” (Potter 2005b: 440). Some speculate about “operas that might have been,” thanks to the mass emigration of composers with prior success in the genre who relocated and then retooled: Goldschmidt, Hindemith, Korngold, Krenek, Schoenberg, Toch, Weill, Wellesz, Wolpe, and Zemlinsky (Heldt 2005: 158; Taylor-Jay 2004). Of course, those hypothetical losses are negligible compared to the losses incurred by those who were unable to emigrate, such as the prisoners at the so-called model camp of Terezín. Viktor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis and Hans Krása’s children’s opera Brundibár were both composed there and have garnered much recent attention in conjunction with Holocaust Studies (Laux 2005; Schultz 2007).

Pursuing research on opera during the Third Reich also leads down the rabbit hole of Wagner’s operas, his descendants, Bayreuth, and the Führer (Friedländer and Rüsen 2000). Pamela Potter traces the roots of the controversy to Adorno’s 1937 essay “In Search of Wagner,” in which Adorno explicitly identified anti-Semitism “not only in Wagner’s prose but also in several of his musical works” (Potter 2005: 752); interest, both scholarly and prurient, shows no sign of abating. Another perennially problematic figure is Richard Strauss, arguably the most famous German musician of his day, whose entanglement with the Party apparatus has been interpreted variously as naive, apolitical, and opportunistic (Potter 1992). The operas he wrote between 1933 and 1945 remain less well known than his earlier works, although Zychowicz submits that this should not be attributed to the political context but to an artistic one, since Strauss produced these works when he was no longer “the rebel, innovator, and Wunderkind,” and while working without his longtime librettist Hofmannsthal (Zychowicz 2003: 286).

There was considerable musical-theater experimentation in the 1920s and early 1930s in the Soviet Union as well. In fact, this period could be considered a high point in Russian operatic life because of the wide array of operas being staged and the theatrical innovation on display in those productions (Bartlett 2008). There is little published on these forays into appropriately Soviet opera, however, save Ivan Dzerzhinsky’s song opera Tikhiy Don (Quiet Flows the Don), which is assured a place in Soviet opera history as the ostensible role model against which Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was measured and found wanting (Taruskin 2000). Lady Macbeth has come to symbolize the artistic casualties of Stalin’s purges. Marina Frolova-Walker outlines the policy ramifications of the Lady Macbeth affair, which resulted in a Stalinist Soviet opera project so beset by contradictions that no new work could meet bureaucratic expectations, and it was discontinued in 1946 (Frolova-Walker 2005).

Biography of a City: Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny

Few works better demonstrate the convergence of this welter of Wagner, modernism, and politics—not to mention genre—than Brecht and Weill’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt (p. 1058) Mahagonny (1927–1929). Mahagonny is a fictional city in the United States, and the characters in the opera have distinctly Americanized names. This reflects a common trope of Weimar-era literature in which German authors formulated fantastical notions of that country derived from film and fiction, part land of opportunity and part land of capitalist exploitation and misery. The score features some musical Americana, as well, mostly in the form of pieces coopted from their 1927 Mahagonny-Songspiel, such as the famous “Alabama Song.” Overall, however, Weill’s score for Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny is far more opera than song, as indicated by its deliberate generic designation as an opera (this is discussed further below). As for the libretto, Americans may be struck by the artistic license taken with geography, since three fugitives found a pleasure city close enough to Alaska to attract men returning from mining and lumberjack work, yet close enough to Pensacola for that city to be described as “nearby.” In fact, Mahagonny could be Las Vegas, if it were not for the great natural disaster of Act I: an approaching hurricane. The pleasures on offer there include eating, sex, fighting, and drinking, all available as long as one has the money. Overindulgence leads to death, however, and poverty is a capital offense. The male lead, Jim Mahoney, is brought up on a variety of charges, but he is ultimately executed because he has run out of money. The opera ends in chaos, with the citizens in disarray, the city on fire in the background, and the words “Nothing will help him or us or you now.”

Brecht and Weill’s brief, famously problematic yet highly productive partnership was a result of the cultural maelstrom that was Berlin during the Weimar Republic. The Greater Berlin Act of 1920 incorporated the surrounding areas into the city proper for the first time, and the capital was suddenly a sprawling metropolis with four million inhabitants. The modern city inspired all manner of art, even if only as model dystopia, as in Fritz Lang’s silent film Metropolis (1927). Urban life as experienced in Berlin in the 1920s—a city known for its social and political agitation, cutting-edge art, and decadence—left its mark on five of Brecht and Weill’s six musical theater collaborations. Mahagonny-Songspiel, Die Dreigroschenoper, Happy End, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, and Die sieben Todsünden treat the mostly negative effects of the modern city on the human condition (only Der Jasager does not). In fact, Stephen Hinton argues persuasively that the main character of Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny is actually the city of Mahagonny itself, and not any of the colorful characters who inhabit it. This is evident in the title as well as in the composer’s plot synopsis, in which Weill identifies just one character by name (Jim Mahoney), and mentions him only twice. By comparison, Weill refers to the city fourteen times, and states explicitly that “the main character of the piece is the city, which emerges from people’s needs” (Hinton 2012: 148–149). Of course, this was not the first time that a city had been important in an opera’s plot; but while Paris is vital to La traviata, it does not vie with Violetta for center stage. Mahagonny is the star, and, just as the title promises, the opera is its biography. The city is the quintessentially modernist subject for an opera.

The list of Brecht and Weill’s musical theater collaborations above can be taken as a representative sampling of the genre experimentation underway during this period. Their first version of the city of Mahagonny appeared onstage in Mahagonny-Songspiel, (p. 1059) a twenty-five-minute work commissioned for the Deutsche Kammermusik Festival Baden-Baden in 1927. The generic designation is clearly intended as a play on the word Singspiel to signal retention of the format of numbers connected by spoken dialogue, with a nod toward its American-style songs. It was staged in a boxing ring. That material then formed the basis for Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, a work written between 1927 and 1929 and explicitly designated as an opera. During this time, Brecht and Weill also completed Die Dreigroschenoper (“play with music in a prologue and three acts,” 1928—and described by both as “the prototype of opera”), Happy End (“comedy with music in three acts,” 1929), and Der Jasager (“Schuloper in two acts,” 1930). Their last collaboration was the “sung ballet” Die sieben Todsünden (1933). To this list could be added the Lehrstück Lindberghflug (1929), a participatory piece in which the listener at home was meant to sing the title role while the work was broadcast on the radio. Both Weill and Hindemith contributed to the score.

As noted, much genre-bending represented artists’ quest for alternatives to Wagner, and the same is true for Brecht and Weill. By the time the playwright met the composer, the former had recovered from his youthful, ardent dalliance with Wagner’s operas. When Brecht derided opera writ large, he was actually complaining about the Gesamtkunstwerk, which he took as representative of the opera genre and all its problems: musical, theatrical, institutional, and social. He quite admired the operas of Mozart, so it was not as if he deemed the entire genre unsalvageable—just its most excessively Romantic version, and the narcotic effect he believed its continuous music had on the audience. Brecht opposed the Wagnerian theatricality that had become standard in German theaters, operatic or not, and approached the issue from the perspective of audience experience (Calico 2008). Weill was a protégée of the composer Ferruccio Busoni, who advocated alternatives to Wagner in aesthetics, form, and style. Each came to the partnership with his own idea for a type of “epic opera” that might provide a foil to the Gesamtkunstwerk. They found common ground in Die Dreigroschenoper, when Brecht seemed to think that eliminating the continuous musical score in favor of discrete numbers would render the music less effective. Weill, on the other hand, relished the return to a form of number opera. The songs from Die Dreigroschenoper became wildly popular as independent hits extracted from the show, a development that undermined Brecht’s theory about the limited potency of music in that format.

All the while, they collaborated on the Mahagonny opera. Weill had considerable input into the libretto, even telling his publisher in November 1927 that “I have been working daily with Brecht on the libretto, which is being formed completely in accordance with my directions. This type of collaboration, on the basis of which a libretto is actually structured from a purely musical point of view, opens up whole new possibilities.” The foreword he prepared in December 1929 for the publisher, Universal Edition, contains this unequivocal statement: “The subject matter of the opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny made possible a structure based purely on musical laws” (cited in Hinton 2012: 141). The commercial success of the Dreigroschenoper songs, coupled with Weill’s public assertion that music was the most important element in the epic opera project, provoked a response from Brecht that is equal parts manifesto for epic theater (p. 1060) and death certificate for opera (“Notes on the Opera ‘Mahagonny’”). This statement accompanied his publication of the opera libretto in 1930, but it should be noted that the libretto he published was not the version Weill had composed. (Brecht frequently published revised versions of his texts. This has led to considerable miscommunication between musicologists and literary scholars, since the latter tend to focus on the final version of a text, while musicologists focus on the version set to music, which is usually early.) Brecht’s heated and often theoretically oriented rhetoric can be confusing. Hinton draws a distinction between two components of Brecht’s theory: epic structure and epic effect. The former is “a theory of creation, a poietics,” and the latter is “a philosophy of performance and reception, an aesthetics” (Hinton 2012: 147). Pragmatically speaking, the collaborators parted ways because Weill advocated a return to a Mozartean structure akin to number opera, and Brecht, who could not abide the supremacy of music in that formulation, gave up the genre as beyond rehabilitation. Their notions of what would make an opera epic, which is essentially anti-Wagnerian, were no longer sufficiently compatible. Brecht would not complete another work designated as an opera until 1951, when he and Paul Dessau produced Die Verurteilung des Lukullus in what was by that time East Berlin. As Matthew W. Smith has shown, however, this did not prevent Brecht from assimilating the totalizing aspect of the Gesamtkunstwerk experience into his theories of epic theater (Smith: 2007).

As for its modernist credentials, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny falls within Steinberg’s parameters as laid out above by virtue of its date of composition and its reckoning with Wagner. Steinberg asserts that “[M]odernist opera is European, international, and emancipatory where its leading historical and political referents are German, nationalistic, and hegemonic” (Steinberg 2006: 631–632). This raises the question of whether it is even possible for a German opera to qualify as modernist, since its German identity is also its historical and political referent and, as laid out in this binary, the opposite of the essential modernist feature “European.” Apparently the answer is “yes,” since Steinberg goes on to discuss Strauss’s Salome and Elektra, but these date from the first decade of the twentieth century, and he is largely silent on matters of German opera as he nears his cut-off date of 1933. Interestingly enough, Weill is not mentioned at all, an omission that may reflect persistent disciplinary differences between history and musicology. By contrast, literary scholar Herbert Lindenberger follows musicologist Alexander Ringer in his assessment that Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny were the two pillars of the future of opera; Lindenberger positions them as antitheses, equally significant polar opposites (Lindenberger 1998).

For Steinberg, modernist opera is characterized by a post-nationalist style that challenges German hegemony in the form of Wagner’s Opera as stand-in for all opera, and rejects Wagnerism’s national mythology. Challenges to Wagner are abundant in Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, although the extent to which they may be construed as post-nationalist is debatable. The first published vocal score plainly states that the names of characters can be changed to reflect the country of any given performance, since “the city of Mahagonny is in every sense international” (although in practice that rarely happens). Weill’s effort to re-establish number opera as the definitive operatic structure (p. 1061) and Brecht’s attempts to undermine the anaesthetizing effects of continuous music both challenge the notion of Wagner as Opera, as does the use of projected inscriptions. Number opera is the basic form of opera seria, with its self-contained da capo arias joined by recitative, and it is also the basic formula for the musical, in which songs are linked by spoken dialogue. On both counts, Weill eschews Wagnerism. Nevertheless, the opera features continuous music with recitative and significant orchestral segments. Furthermore, it features numerous allusions to works from the operatic canon (Mozart’s Zauberflöte, Beethoven’s Fidelio, Verdi’s Il trovatore, and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde), as well as demonstrations of considerable craft in the arts of the neo-Baroque: counterpoint, as in the musical rendering of the hurricane, and cantilena, in the ethereal “Crane Duet” (Hinton 2012: 151–152). On the other hand, the score also includes contemporary dance rhythms, the song form and song style he had cultivated in previous works, and traces of the “austere classicism” he had undertaken for Der Jasager (Hinton 2012: 101). Hinton astutely compares this marriage of styles to that found in late Mozart, wherein “the ‘learned style’ (stile antico) is played off against the more modern and more obviously popular ‘gallant style’” (Hinton 2012: 151). Ultimately, Weill was committed to the perpetuation of the opera species. He did so by preserving those elements of the tradition he found most useful and combining them with the Weimar-Republic equivalent of the galant style. In terms of musical style, then, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny does pose a challenge to German hegemony in the sense that said German hegemony was Wagner as stand-in for Opera, but its DNA is still recognizably Austro-German. “German” as historical and political referent was perhaps unavoidable, but the other pre-modernist vices, “nationalist” and “hegemonic,” are conspicuously absent.

Nazi politics shaped the fate of Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny from its first performance, which took place at Leipzig’s Neues Theater on March 9, 1930. It was supposed to have premiered in Berlin. Otto Klemperer had agreed to give the first performance at the Kroll Oper, but he (like the publishers) balked at the libretto, and other arrangements had to be made. The Nazi party was making significant political inroads by this time, and they instigated protests against the Jewish Weill at the Leipzig performance. Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya was with him that night, and recalled the scene as follows:

I have been told that the square around the opera house was filled with Nazi Brown Shirts, carrying placards protesting at the “Mahagonny” performance. But I had come to Leipzig the day of the performance, and I could see, hear, think nothing but “Mahagonny”; Kurt’s parents and I were in our seats, and the performance well underway, before I was startled out of my absorption by the electric tension around us, something strange and ugly. As the opera swept toward its close, the demonstrations started, whistles and boos; by the time the last scene was reached, fist fights had broken out in the aisles, the theatre was a screaming mass of people; soon the riot had spread to the stage, panicky spectators were trying to claw their way out, and only the arrival of a large police force finally cleared the theatre.

(Lenya 1959: 8)

Subsequent performances in Braunschweig and Kassel could go on only after the artists had agreed to make cuts that would render the opera less offensive, although these (p. 1062) sanitized versions elicited protests as well; a performance in Frankfurt in October 1930 was likewise disrupted by Nazi demonstrations. In December 1931 the impresario Ernst Joseph Aufricht finally got a performance onstage in Berlin, at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm. This version was severely reduced and truncated to accommodate the performers, who were mostly singing actors known to Weill and Brecht from Die Dreigroschenoper.

Nazi politics also shaped the fate of the opera’s creators. A Jewish composer and a Marxist playwright were easy targets for the regime, and their works were suppressed until 1945. Both fled Germany, and, like so many other European intellectuals in this period, went to the United States. Weill emigrated with Lenya in 1935, became an American citizen, and took New York by storm, ruling Broadway for the last several years of his life; he died in 1950 at age 50. Brecht finally landed at the port of Los Angeles in 1941, where he eked out a living until he was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) during the Red Scare of 1947; he fled to Europe before he could be further detained. He died in 1956, having spent his last years in East Germany at the helm of his dedicated theater, the Berliner Ensemble. The two scarcely communicated while both were in the United States.

See also: Politics, The Language of National Style, Critics


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