The Zeitoper

Max Brand

Max Brand in the 1980’s

Viktor Zuckerkandl makes a return to this page with his critique of the ‘Zeitoper’, a concept that has no English equivalent but was used to convey a genre of opera that offered the spectators of the day, a story that was about contemporary life. The idea was hardly new: one could call ‘la Traviata’ or ‘La Boheme’ 19th century Zeitopern. But the 20th century had brought Germany and Austria a horrible war, new politics, music from America and boundless technology. Never had so much ‘newness’ arrived at such a frantic pace and it made German opera up until this point look distressingly moth-eaten and frayed. Composers had simply carried on with their Wagnerian innovations and found themselves stuck in the toe curling embarrassment of the kinky, psychotic fairy-tale (Schreker, Strauss and Korngold); re-workings of ancient myths (Wellesz and Strauss), or so-called ‘operas of avowal’ – didactic operas that were meant to present deeper creative expressions of life’s purposes (Pfitzner and later, even Hindemith). The ‘Zeitoper’ by contrast was aggressively shallow – cocking a snoot at ‘avowals’ and general operatic wind-baggery. Zuckerkandl – as in his review of ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ – doesn’t really get it. Indeed, in trying to argue against the ideas driving the Zeitoper-juggernaut across Germany opera-stages, he resorts to a good deal of wind-baggery himself. (One wonders if the editorial interjections found in Zuckerkandl’s final summing up come from Dr. Julius Korngold, the paper’s arch-enemy of the ‘Zeitoper’. See the articles elsewhere on this page about Erich Korngold’s ‘Das Wunder der Heliane’ vs. Ernst Krenek’s ‘Jonny spielt auf’).

Zuckerkandl does pick up on one telling point when reviewing Max Brand’s ‘Mechanic Hopkins’ – Brand ‘places the music of people vis-à-vis the music of machines’. Max Brand (a pupil of Franz Schreker), would develop the prototype of the synthesiser while living in American exile (Brand was Jewish, but returned to Austria after the war). He went on to develop the earliest implementation of synthesisers in electronic music and the results he elicited from his prototype, (still working in the Max Brand Institute in Lower Austria), are beautiful and evocative. Despite the fact that they cannot be shaped into recognisable musical forms, his compositions of sound sequences manage to offer their own mysterious narrative. The photo shows him shortly before his death in 1980.

Zuckerkandl is very unfair about ‘Mechanic Hopkins’ – it has lots of beautiful music and yes, it has a deliberately cinematic story-line. (One thinks of ‘Metropolis’). But musically, it’s more than just a fusion of Berg, Schreker, Dixieland and tangos. It is genuinely a distinctive voice and at the time, pace Zuckerkandl, it was recognised as such. The spectacular use of stage-machinery may also have appealed to a generation of film-buff opera-patrons. It was translated into a number of languages and for a short time, it dominated opera stages to the point that Alban Berg grew concerned that houses were dropping ‘Wozzeck’ in preference of ‘Hopkins’. Brand’s opera, ‘Requiem’ was to have been conducted by Karl Böhm at Berlin’s Staatsoper in 1933 – Böhm, an ardent admirer of Hitler must have welcomed the excuse to drop it. The work has subsequently vanished – either destroyed in the bombing or later, destroyed by Brand himself. In fact, many of Brand’s pre-war works are missing. He came from a wealthy background – a fact that appears to have irritated fellow Schreker pupils who regarded him as being without talent. His lessons were private and either he had not been accepted into the music academy, or had simply not bothered to audition. For a while, he was in a relationship with a woman in Prague and there is some speculation (or hope) that his missing works (including many Lieder) may one day turn up somewhere in the Czech Republic, assuming they were not disposed of following or during the war.

‘The Zeitoper in Berlin: Max Brand’s Mechanic Hopkins and Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny‘
Viktor Zuckerkandl: Neue Freie Presse, 5 May, 1930

The problem of German contemporary theatre has been demanding a good deal of our attention these days. Bringing theatre up to date is indeed a challenge. But whatever motives may lie behind these moves, we can certainly agree on why we’re particularly receptive to the concept. Our need for art that reaches right into the problems of our daily lives is as understandable as the fact that art per se, must inevitably reflect the time from which it originates. As Stephan George writes: “Though dreams and distant travel may offer nourishment, it is the air we breathe that gives us life” – though it would be a mistake to accuse him of preferring the ‘air’ of the present to that of the past. The need for being au courant is not limited to straight theatre – it’s now starting to make inroads into opera as well. Indeed opera, with its laborious broad apparatus, is accused of not being able to keep up with the times at all. It’s been focused far too much on the heroic-sentimental theatrical idea of past ages, thus keeping itself shielded from the hardships of modern existence. Opera is in retreat and is not prepared to deal with our shaky condition of partially self-inflicted, partially imposed compromises thrown up between life, work, free time, mechanisation, time and money. It is to be expected, therefore, that an easily perceived alienation should result between opera and its public. If things don’t change soon, it would be easy to imagine opera dying out altogether. Yet despite these inevitabilities, it remains the case that opera is where one is still least likely to encounter modern life. Opera’s appeal is apparently not due to its ability to deal with contemporary issues, but in its innate artistic value. Today’s important works simply do not feel the need to point fingers at whatever current controversies we have to deal with in our modern lives. The question of whether a work of art is ‘modern and relevant’ is a question of its material, or at the most, its outer manifestation. Yet neither comes close to touching the principal ingredient of art – its form. Anything can come across as relevant that has no artistic merit whatsoever and we do well to keep these divisions clear. But there can equally be serious works of art with mysterious, hidden strands that still manage to tie life to our current times. The short-sighted see only the outward relevance of these works and the inner artistic substance is lost. To place ‘relevance to our lives today’ as the principal artistic requirement is to return to dark ages of the past, which placed the ‘what’ of art over the ‘how’.

Music is intrinsically limited in its ability to speak of modern life, as it is itself fundamentally abstract. It does not have the material to represent our current existence that is enjoyed by other expressive disciplines. Indeed, music cannot show anything in particular, it is incapable of discussing or polemicizing issues – it does not have the power of animating contemporary life in the way of literature or the visual arts. And in any case, what within an opera can be more relevant than its fundamental treatment of material? Music can only be called ‘relevant’ in its conveyed sense or in its most outward form. And it is in precisely these areas, that those who demand ‘relevance’ in music offer instead, only confusion. Is all that’s required to meet the demands of being ‘au courant’ really the mere inclusion of a saxophone, banjo, jazzy rhythms with an aeroplane and a car on stage as props?

[With these questions in mind] we come to Max Brand’s ‘Mechanic Hopkins’. It was premiered last summer in Duisburg and enjoyed such enormous success that it was instantly taken up by many additional German houses – including a recent well-appointed performance at Berlin’s Municipal Charlottenburg Opera. It is quite specifically in this work that we encounter a huge portion of ‘relevant’ current-affairs: social problems and criminality; capitalism and poverty; exploiters and the exploited; factory workers and theatre loveys; assembly-lines and luxury villas; mechanical pianos in dive bar and jazz-bands in sophisticated nightclubs. This was all enough to convince conductors, opera house directors and the public to recognise this work as a substantial contribution to the genre of ‘the modern opera’ [Zeitoper]. To place actors scenically, visually and musically into situations that can be recognized by the spectators was not the only novel idea that Brand had: his most unique device was to place the music of people vis-à-vis the music of machines – machines that are animated by means of a contemporary fairy-story. How far beyond this initial concept – (for it truly doesn’t get much beyond this basic idea) – actually goes into achieving a desirable opera? Well, such a fundamental question does not appear to have been raised. The events of the most primitive cinema plot, reworked for the stage and offering unstructured chaotic music lacking both tone and expression, all of it incapable of rising above the lowest level of amateurism, none of it with dramatic or musical characterisation – well, all of these feature are far further down the list of priorities when it comes to being ‘relevant’. It has given us a disastrous quid-pro-quo of being relevant vs. offering quality.

Lighter musical theatre – as always – offers something more convincing along these lines. It has always made current affairs its subject – indeed, it was normally its very starting point. Satire and parody, cheerful but sharp, social and political critiques of the ruling classes or individual personalities, repackaged in easy-dramatic chunks that gave us pointed texts wedded to music – even rhythmic music if a bit of extra piquancy was required. The decay of the modern operetta, its descent from social criticism to social pandering, its flatness of intellect and wit and its move towards sentimentality and silliness has left us with a major lacuna in modern musical theatre. What is true is that no musical theatre could be more socially critical and thereby ‘relevant’ than the music-theatre of today – and it is here, on the margins of opera, indeed on the margins of the artistic, that one should start to look for that combination of literary and musical theatre that offers social, current critique.

And it is in this context that I come to Brecht and Weill’s ‘Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’. Its popularity following its premiere in Leipzig was somewhat more subdued than ‘Mechanic Hopkins’, with performances [only] in Kassel, Braunschweig and a couple of fragments broadcast by Berlin Radio. This work, however, will no doubt leave its imprint in the fight to create modern, relevant opera. It is a work that shows with parody and satire the very dregs of society on the very bottom steps of human understanding, which the authors have nihilistically placed vis-à-vis themselves. ‘Oh Friends! I don’t wish to be a human being’ are the words they put in the mouth of the chief protagonist. It is clear though, that they are referring to themselves. But it’s at this point that their paths part. They are obliged to be human beings – and it doesn’t matter that they would actually prefer being artists. It is specifically the human expression that saves this opera from its light-music character and thereby offers something that is in the manner of high art being more than the mere light entertainment of didactic, agitprop, demi-art instead. But it’s the opera’s ‘relevance-factor’ that makes ‘Mahagonny’ what must be considered a true ‘Zeitoper’. Indeed, it could be seen as the prototype for future operas. (Footnote from the editor: This was said of [Krenek’s] now totally forgotten ‘Jonny’ opera).

So would we be better served by being more modest in our ambitions to be relevant? What indeed, have the enigmatic individual laws concerning the nature of development within artistic forms, (something that has stayed consistent since time immemorial), to do with the rapid comings and goings of situations that confront us day-to-day? If a completed work of art should happen to intersect with the events of the day in a manner that one appears to be the fulfilment of the other – and major questions of our time are answered in a comprehensive and comprehensible fashion – this would be more than a coincidence. Indeed, it’s a blessing for which one must be grateful, in demanding and accepting the unexpressed condition, that art is a representation of intentions and purposes – with the artist merely delivering the final product. In this, the most ephemeral works as well as the greatest have a common root in the supra-spirit that determines and shapes each individual age – each generation, each location – and it would be impossible to conceive of a work of art that existed outside of these parameters. (Footnote from the editor: the history of music would contradict this conclusion) But these currents flow deep and the rushing-sounds they produce can only be heard by those who through their artistic endeavours are able to perceive them. The need to be ‘relevant and modern’ in the manner that is demanded today – with its hints of exclusivity and its frequent self-aggrandizement – is not suitable for promoting either the understanding or the appreciation of today’s arts.