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Features Opinion Published 17 May 2011

Mahler at the Opera

On the centenary of the late-Romantic composer's death, Robert investigates Mahler's lingering relationship with opera.
Robert Barry

There is a persistent fantasy concerned with the idea of Gustav Mahler as a composer of operas. One expressed most decidedly in the attempt by David Cope, inventor of the algorithmic composition system Experiments in Musical Intelligence (affectionately known as Emmy), to automatically generate a “Mahler opera” by feeding into his computer software the composer’s songs, symphonies and personal correspondence, along with the conventions of operatic construction.

The fantasy was felt just as keenly by the young Mahler himself, who made several attempts to write his own opera, but only succeeded in completing one left unfinished by Carl Maria von Weber, Die drei Pintos. The latter had languished as a series of unperformed sketches since Weber’s death in 1826, and only taken up by the 26-year old Mahler in the midst of an attempt to seduce Weber’s grandson’s wife. The completed work was panned by venerable contemporary critics such as Hans von Bülow and Eduard Hanslick, and is rarely performed today.

But the fascination persists, projecting an alternative history (in the manner perhaps of that great opera lover, Philip K. Dick) in which the composer often seen as Wagner’s successor writes a stage work to compete with his idol. The latest symptom to emerge is an exhibition at Paris’s Musée D’Orsay charting Mahler’s thirty year career as conductor and director of operas, culminating in his revolutionary decade at the helm of the Vienna Hofoper, starting in 1897.

In the highly anti-semitic climate of fin-de-siècle Vienna, Mahler was a deeply divisive figure and the object of a rash of a newspaper caricatures (many of which are included in the D’Orsay’s exhibition). He raised eyebrows as much for his supposedly dogmatic and tyrannical style of direction as for his radical approach to the repertoire. In the course of his tenure, some thirty-three new operas were introduced to the Hofoper’s repertoire (including new works by Saint-Saëns, Zemlinsky and Richard Strauss), and fifty-five more were radically reworked. His partner in crime in these operatic reforms was the artist and designer he met in 1902 and appointed chief stage designer a year later: Alfred Roller.

Roller was the co-founder of the so-called Vienna Secession, a group of Austrian artists determined to “save culture from its elders.” Against the bourgeois picturesque historicism of Hans Makart and the then dominant Genossenschaft der bildenden Künstler Österreichs, Roller and his associates – including Gustav Klimt, Kolomen Moser, Joseph Hoffmann, and Carl Moll – declared war against the established order, heralding an aesthetic of curves, gaps and blurred edges, with affinities to the Jugendstil and Art Nouveau.

At the Hofoper, Roller’s changes were sweeping: excessive ornamentation was banished, form was to follow function, and every element of the staging had to serve a specific purpose, with proto-expressionistic lighting playing a pivotal role. Mahler and Roller’s Wagner productions in particular represented the first significant break with, and advance upon, the standard set by the composer himself at Bayreuth. The impact of these reforms was tremendous, and can be felt in the post-war New Bayreuth of Wieland Wagner, the theatre of Max Reinhardt and the cinema of F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang – even Orson Welles.

Due to a widespread suspicion on the part of the musical establishment towards David Cope’s virtual music, his Mahler Opera is yet to receive a major performance at one of the world’s great opera houses. So one can only speculate on how its staging might be handled by today’s radical artists and designers. In the meantime, the dream of a Mahlerian gesamtkunstwerk inevitably finds focus in the composer’s symphonies, with more than one person suggesting the Eighth in particular, with its solos, choruses and Faustian narrative, could work as a staged performance. In the end, though, such a plan must resemble an excessive gilding of the lily, for few composers, as the  Musée D’Orsay’s exhibition suggests, have so successfully conceived the symphony as an entire world unto itself.

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Robert Barry is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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