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Ingo Metzmacher [Photo by Mathias Bothor]
26 Jan 2009

Anne Ozorio Interviews Ingo Metzmacher on Die tote Stadt

Erich Korngold’s Die tote Stadt comes to the Royal Opera House in January 2009. It’s the first time this production has been seen in London : it is the famed Willy Decker production from Salzburg in 2004 which did so much to restore Korngold’s status.

Anne Ozorio Interviews Ingo Metzmacher on Die tote Stadt

Above: Ingo Metzmacher [Photo by Mathias Bothor]


The production has been heard in Vienna, San Francisco, Barcelona and Amsterdam. Interestingly, of all the conductors who have participated, Ingo Metzmacher is most closely associated with modern, avant garde music. What drew him to Korngold, who has a reputation for romantic lushness and glamor ? “Because it is a modern opera”, he says, “written on the edge of modernism”.

Die tote Stadt was a written in the aftermath of the First World War, when Austria had lost its empire. Korngold’s father, Julius was a prominent Viennese music critic, so the young composer grew up in circles of privilege. “Die tote Stadt”, says Metzmacher, “looks back one more time” on the glorious past, “but at the same time it’s aware that this will be the last time for looking back”. The plot is about a man who lives in the past but then makes a decision to go forward. It is a brilliant evocation of the ‘good old times’ but you can already feel that change is coming. It’s like an old photograph. You like to keep it and look at it, but you know that reality is different. I feel in this piece a kind of ambiguity I like very much. It is on the step towards a new world, but before going ahead it looks back one more time. Korngold looks back, excited by the beauty, grandeur and brightness of the world he knew.”

There are differences between the opera and the novel on which it was based, Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges la Morte. “In the book”, Metzmacher adds, “the man really commits murder and goes mad. But in the opera, it’s just a dream, he wakes up and walks away. That’s what composers do, they adjust the plot for their needs. The music is sombre at times, but basically it’s bright, shiny and optimistic – brilliant, not depressing at all. So let’s be glad he wrote an opera in this way”. It’s Korngold’s opera, something new rather than a slavish imitation of the novel. Interestingly, the novel is about a man dominated by the memory of his dead wife. The libretto was credited to “Paul Schott”, but was in fact written jointly by the composer and his father.

Metzmacher conducted this production of Die tote Stadt in Amsterdam in 2005. “Sometimes,” he says, “I’m drawn to a piece from the start, but it’s always a good sign when you come back to something and find more interesting things in it. It’s ambivalent, ambiguous. I like to think of it as a very beautiful object, very shiny and precious, but it’s like there are cracks in it, it’s not whole anymore. It’s something which is still beautiful, but it’s from the past and there are fine cracks in it. When we look back on the past, we prefer the good memories. In Germany we say things can be “too beautiful to be true”. You can feel that in this music, and I think Korngold used it deliberately for that purpose”. It’s a striking insight. Luscious as this music is, it’s not a recreation of past glories as such, but of their memory.

Like the hero Paul, the music moves on. “There are passages in this piece that are really amazing, really modern in concept. Harmonies and clashes of keys”. The plot itself is dissonant, for Paul, the hero, comes to know that he cannot remain in the past, so in many ways Korngold is taking his cure faithfully from the narrative. So why didn’t the composer himself move forward to new things ? “It’s a difficult question”, says Metzmacher. Korngold probably didn’t make up his mind consciously not to “follow the open road”, as Metzmacher puts it. “Schoenberg opened a door, but many others didn’t follow him. So Korngold is in good company.” He was taken out of his environment by the Nazis and went to Hollywood. “By the time he came back in the 1950’s, time had moved on and he had lost contact with developments”.

“You have also to remember that Korngold was a Wunderkind, a child prodigy. He had an incredible ability to write music, it came so easily to him. Listen to the piano sonata he wrote when he was 10 or 11 years old. It’s just unbelievable! A good composer is one who has his own language which is original and individual. Korngold had his own language, so how could he have changed it ? It’s his music. I think we should just listen to the music. It’s pointless to ask why he didn’t write anything more modern or different. Schoenberg was a different kind of person, he had to work for what he achieved, so his situation is completely different”.

When Korngold left Vienna, he went on to a successful career as composer of film music. Since films had been silent until the end of the 1920’s music for film was a whole new genre. “Korngold was the vanguard, the front line, in writing music for film. It’s interesting that so many men from the Austro-German tradition went to Hollywood. They had to do to make a living in exile but they made the style”.

Die tote Stadt is hardly “unknown” although it’s not been fully staged in London before. It was extremely popular in the 1920’s and 30’s. Some of the songs, like the famous Glück, das mir verblieb and the Pierrot’s Lied have been recorded by many singers, from Lotte Lehmann to Renée Fleming. Apart from the arias, what is most interesting about the opera as music? “The orchestra love playing it”, says Metzmacher, “even though it’s quite difficult. I don’t know what’s not to like about it. From the very first bars, one is won over. It sets the tone immediately. There are very few pieces which start with this BANG. You hear right from the beginning what Korngold likes to do.”

“A good opera”, says Metzmacher, “always comes to life when the specific musical language of the composer meets the core of the plot. In this case, this composer, who was so brilliant, recreates the music of the past but makes it in his own language. The libretto is about a man who lives in the past, in a city that also lives in the past. There are many different layers of meaning. It’s a bit somber and there’s struggle but it’s also about seeing the horizon, finding something to look out for. It’s an existential problem we all face. How much of the past do we hold on to? How do we overcome the past? How much to lose, how much to carry on forwards? It’s very interesting, and makes this opera so special”.

Anne Ozorio

Die tote Stadt runs at the Royal Opera House, London from 27 January to 17th February 2009. The cast includes Torsten Kerl and Stephen Gould as Paul, Gerald Finley as Frank/Fritz, Nadja Michael as Marie/Marietta, and Kathleen Wilkinson as Brigitta. Willy Decker directs, and Ingo Metzmacher conducts the Royal Opera House Orchestra.

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