My dissertation explores the overlapping significations of wandering in operas written by German-speaking Jews between 1912 and 1937. Beyond the importance of the Germanic wanderer and the Wandering Jew in 19th century German culture, the advent of modernity infused the wandering figure with some new identities and heightened some old ones (for example, the wanderer as cosmopolitan flâneur, feminized streetwalker, new urban woman, post-religious pilgrim, and exile from total war). In each chapter, I consider how these different valences of the wanderer and broader abstract themes of wandering shape a particular opera: Franz Schreker's Der Ferne Klang (1912), Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die Tote Stadt (1920), Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (1933), and Kurt Weill's The Eternal Road (1933). In addition to book and music, I examine important stagings, performance technologies, and production histories of each opera. I also engage deeply with scholarship on "wandering forms" in the multiple genres that make up an operatic text, looking at recent work done on digressive literature, spatial harmonic analysis, and pedestrian theatrical performance. By focusing on the concept of walking, across multiple works, forms, and genres, my project ranges thematically from prostitution as a feminized form of wandering; to Freudian-inflected undead walkers in the aftermath of the First World War; to the wandering Jew as a creative national force, poetically inscribing a new homeland for himself through his movement; and finally to the attempt by wartime exiles to infinitely defer the inevitability of death through eternal wandering. For an abstract of each chapter, please click the corresponding box below. When you're done reading one abstract, just click the large grey box again to return to this screen.
In the opening of Franz Schreker's 1912 opera Der Ferne Klang, the ambitious young composer Fritz abandons his beloved Grete because, as he explains, he must find his far-off sound and become a great musician. Like a Romantic German hero a hundred years out of date, Fritz journeys out into the world. Grete mirrors Fritz in his travels, but while his path is a purely artistic endeavor, her journey is marred from the start by sexual threats. First her father tries to sell her to his landlord to pay his debts, then she is lured into becoming a courtesan on a Venetian island, and finally becomes a streetwalker. Together, Fritz and Grete reflect and contrast male and female wandering tropes in the early 20th century, when feminine flânerie was coded as prostitution.
Grete begins as a victimized heroine in the tradition of Goethe's Gretchen: spurned by her lover, trapped by family and social pressures, edging towards madness. But the choice she makes, by refusing suicide, represents a kind of independent agency foreign to an earlier heroine. As Carolyn Abbate would point out, it's a mistake to read Grete's descent into prostitution as evidence of her subjugation. Responding to Catherine Clément's infamous claim that opera illustrates an endless progression of the destruction of women, Abbate recognizes "women as the makers of musical sonority in opera," and that this quality is "inherent in all opera by virtue of its phenomenology." Grete is the character onstage throughout Der Ferne Klang, she sings the first and last word, and she spends Act III receiving heartfelt apologies from the men who have wronged her. Through Grete, Der Ferne Klang raises questions about female agency and narrative meaning, as the ostensible tragic heroine refuses to die but rather claims power through her voice and her visible wandering body.
Abbate, Carolyn. "Opera; or, the Envoicing of Women." Musicology and difference: Gender and sexuality in music scholarship (1993): 225-58.
In Erich Wolfgang Korngold's most famous opera, a man mistakes a beautiful actress for his beloved late wife. Believing that his dead wife lives through this doppelgänger, the protagonist Paul obsessively stalks and falls in love with the woman, finally killing her in a moment of jealous rage. He then awakens to find the entire experience has been a dream, in a Freudian moment of unconscious awareness. In this chapter, I argue that Die Tote Stadt relies dramaturgically on superimposition: one city becomes another and then another, one woman becomes another, one state of reality (life, death, dream, theater) becomes another. These separate spaces melt into and out of each other. After the specificity of Rodenbach's Symbolist novel Bruges-la-morte, on which this opera is based, the nostalgic a-specificity of Tote Stadt, with its myriad musical quotes, references, and allusions to other places, genres, and times, uses theatrical and musical magic to interweave these multiple, overlapping spaces, creating the sense of vertiginous, uncanny meandering that utterly unsettles the main character. Paul, although a flâneur in Rodenbach's source text, is not the one who wanders in the operatic version; in Die Tote Stadt, it's the spaces that wander and Paul who is left spinning in place. More, the superimposition of one time, space, or image on another characterizes the piece, throughout its production history, as a palimpsestic assemblage of ghostly resonances. From the premiere in Hamburg in 1920 to the 1921 production in Dresden, the 1975 revival in New York, and the Helsinki production in 2010, visual projections have provided a crucial staging device. Straussian bi- and polytonality in Korngold's score make the superimposition of one tonality on another audible, and reflect the nostalgic fracture of yearning back towards pre-war Vienna. And finally, superimposition became technically feasible at this postwar moment and illustrated cultural grief for a lost world.
Arnold Schoenberg, the German-Jewish inventor of twelve-tone composition, thought of musical space as a multi-dimensional fabric created by the composer. The fundamental organizing concept of twelve-tone music is the relationship between the tones, rather than (as in tonal music), the tones' relationship to the tonic key. This means that the tones themselves are creating the musical space in which they operate. In 1933, Schoenberg re-converted to Judaism and fled Nazi Germany for America, where his musical ideology was transformed into a series of political fantasies, as he dealt with his exile from Germany by constructing elaborate plans for a Jewish state. The places in his political imaginary were hardly more grounded in reality than the places he invented through his musical symbology; there is thus a fascinating intersection between the places in Schoenberg's Zionist dreams and in his aesthetics.
In this chapter, I analyze how the utopian spaces musically created in Schoenberg's Der Biblische Weg, Die Jakobsleiter, and Moses und Aron intersect with and contradict Schoenberg's dreams for an actual, geographically placeable Jewish State; I show how the places he imagined, in music and libretto, correspond to the actual state of Israel (to which he was steadfastly opposed); and finally, I examine an important filmed version of Moses und Aron made by radical filmmakers Straub/Huillet in 1974, which was a critique of Israel and partly created in response to the Six Day War of 1967. In this opera, and particularly the Straub/Huillet production of it, tensions between idea and representation, artist and activist, come together to present an aesthetic denouncement of the political reality of Israel, valorizing instead a utoptian Jewish state poetically created through movement.
The Eternal Road, produced in the Manhattan Opera House between January and May of 1937, was an epic collaboration of talented Jewish artists who left Europe after 1933. Intended as a spectacular oratorio on the order of Bach's Matthäuspassion and linked to the medieval mystery play tradition , the lengthy piece was performed on a multi-level stage, grandiose on every scale, reliant on elaborate stage machinery to create its complicated effects. The plot revolves around a group of modern Jews huddled in a synagogue while a pogrom rages outside. The persecuted group debates religious questions and retells biblical stories, which are played out on the upper stage levels above them, before eventually the entire company proceeds up the "eternal road." Intended to raise awareness of the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany (where deportations had already begun), The Eternal Road was a critical success and commercially could have been viable (there were over 150 performances), had production costs not bankrupted the producer.
Both historically timely and biblically timeless, The Eternal Road exists in a state of constant near-completion but always already too large and uncontainable for its surroundings. Its historical project too huge, its book far too long, its expenses unsustainable, its technology too new and unappealing, its revival always promised and never delivered; the production history of The Eternal Road, like the content of the work, is characterized by a wistful, next-year-in-Jerusalem acceptance that ultimately the show could never be truly completed. This ironic thread that runs throughout various elements of the show's production was hardly intended by the producers, who thought they would eventually enjoy financial success after opening to critical acclaim. The piece's sense of non-completion is partly explained, too, by the lack of communication between the members of the creative team, each of whom considered his work the most crucial. And yet the theme of infinite deferral carries through the stage design by Norman Bel Geddes, the technological innovations that became a necessary practicality, Max Reinhart's staging, Kurt Weill's music, Franz Werfel/Ludwig Lewisohn's book, and the virtuosic production acrobatics Weisgal performed to keep the show afloat.