A short essay by Jörg Königsdorf
What can the opera achieve?
»The opera emphasises the archaic and the immutable, while simultaneously allowing us to experience different eras.«
In their opera WRITTEN ON SKIN, composer George Benjamin and his librettist Martin Crimp leap boldly through time. From a present that is both mundane and downright provocative, three angels conjure up a gruesome history that took place around 800 years ago. As timeless creatures, the angels slip into the story’s characters, which in turn gives rise once again to an artful game of an intrinsic narrative.
This superimposition of time domains is the most recent example of how operas can repeatedly embrace the ideas of any era and turn them into something that is both new and independent. This is similar to what happens in Polish Nobel prize laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s novel »House of Day, House of Night«, in which the narrative cuts back from the setting of a Silesian village in the nineties to the story of a medieval saint. Reality and imagination thus seem to merge with each other throughout the story. The works of Tokarczuk and Benjamin/Crimp bring out the archaic and the immutable, while detaching the same from fashions and passing fads.
However, while literature nimbly juggles time domains without the restrictions of scenic feasibility, the opera can do something else: It adds the simultaneous presence of different eras to the sequential nature of the narrative, thereby painting a more compelling picture of our perception.
In fact, the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous is a basic property of musical theatre. This effectively becomes self-explanatory when, for example, Gaetano Donizetti’s ANNA BOLENA - whose historical plot is set in the year 1536 - is staged in 2021 within the framework of an updated production involving music from the year 1829. What’s more, the sounds of the instruments, the human voice and the style and form of the musical language enable the opera to portray the present, the past and the utopian potential of the future.
One of Verdi’s or Mozart’s arias doesn’t just tell us something about the emotions of the character in the drama who is currently singing. Its musical composition also retraces the character’s motivation and perspective, while the orchestra simultaneously explains which unconscious driving forces are prevailing.
In this information density, the opera serves to reflect our perception of life. The music, the lyrics and the habits of figures who are foreign to us - such as Don Giovanni and Princess Turandot - provide us with the entirety of the sub-text that we draw in daily life from all the details that characterise an individual: Clothes, accent, gestures and much more. However, unlike the hyper-realism of the cinema, the opera is ever-present as an artistic form. Even the most amazing of the scenic interpretations that grace the opera stage never simulate reality. Instead, they present us with a highly-encoded truthfulness.
Even when the opera deals with historical events, it’s always clear to everyone that it’s not trying to refurbish the facts. In fact, that which hasn’t happened ends up being exactly as important as the things that did take place. There’s a place for both the subjective point of view of the character and the larger framework of the narrative. John Adam’s opera obviously didn’t perfectly reflect Richard Nixon’s trip to China. And the events associated with the judicial murder of English Queen Anne Boleyn were probably different from those depicted in Donizetti’s opera. And even INTERMEZZO, in which Richard Strauss acted like he was putting his own life on stage, is a product of crystallisation which merges the daily and the artificial, and the comical and the tragic, in a way that can otherwise only be accomplished by reality itself.
The opera sucks us in with its emotional and sensory energy, but at the same time, the artistic form and the machinery of the theatre creates a distance that enables us to adopt a certain attitude. This attitude isn’t merely based on a chunk of simplistic information; rather, it can invoke an entire cosmos of potential spaces. By using the opera’s offerings to adopt this attitude, we discover something about ourselves as well. Whether we want to or not.
Jörg Königsdorf has been the scenario editor of the Deutsche Oper Berlin since August 2012. He has supervised, among other things, the Meyerbeer cycle, Aribert Reimann’s and Detlev Glanert’s debut performances and the new THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG by director Stefan Herheim. Mr Königsdorf studied political economics and art history. From 1995 onwards, he has been working as a music critic for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Tagesspiegel and Opernwelt, among others.