About a year ago I was in Vienna and while there, I got to take in an opera.
Opera is a strange area of art that like classical music or English class book list it doesn’t feel like much is ever been added to the canon. From the view of a modern person those sorts of arts have always existed as a short rigid bundle and there is nothing new to add. In school my parents read Romeo and Juliet, and then in turn 35 years later, I also had to read it in school.
When you think of opera, you think of all the great ones composed a dogs age ago and played to death at your nearest opera house: Tosca. La Boheme. Don Giovanni. If you look at any list of the top 20 best operas of all time the list likely won’t include anything after the first world war, and most of the most famous operas are from before the 19th century firmly sat in the hands of Wagner and Puccini and Mozart so it may surprise you that people are still commissioning operas in this modern age – I’ll be it rarely. The Vienna State Opera is one such place which has commissioned a handful of modern operas, most recently one from Johannes Maria Staud and Durs Grünbein called Die Weiden [The Willows].
Billed as a political opera many eyebrows were raised and since it’s only been preformed a handful of times since its premiere and it is so rare a delight that a new opera is produced, we naturally crafted our entire vacation time table around being able to take in such a sight. Needless to say it took me more than a year to actually write about this opera because it’s quite difficult to put into words all of my feelings and it doesn’t help that afterwards my husband and I found a pub and closed out the night laughing about the whole affair over a few glasses of delicious local wine. The reason for that is that the opera was frankly one of the worst things I have ever seen on stage.
Despite the beauty and majesty of the opera house in Vienna, despite the entirely sold out show, and despite the cost and difficulty of going to the opera on a blustery November night, about 10% of the people left after Act One. There were only two acts though so in my heart, I truly believe if there had been a second break another 10% probably would have left the premises. To call Die Weiden clumsy seems like a huge disservice to clumsy people.
Based loosely on Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness“, the general outline of the opera goes as thus: a young couple Lea, a Jewish woman who lives in NYC and Peter, a man from the old country which her family once fled fall in love and then go on a canoe trip down the river to return to the old country. As they travel down this river, which is a not subtle at all stand in for the Danube, they encounter increasingly odd and surreal versions of people who morph from family members, to angry citizens and eventually begin to transform, while spouting fascist / racist nonsense into human-carp monsters.
The opera goes about everything with the subtly a hammer. Lea’s Jewishness is shown in a house filled with menorah and kippahs, that she lives in a NYC penthouse with her rich parents who warn her about how terrible and racist people in the old world are. We can compare this with Peter’s old world family who eat dinner served by black people off guns. I suppose in some sense I should be relived that it isn’t in question who the bad guys are supposed to be though when an old world-er comes out of the bushes and murders a refugee who is then left on stage as Lea sings a song, I was left wondering how I was supposed to feel anything but exploited by this show.
I needn’t have worried because Act 2 had a stirring scene which felt real and biting where the people turned into carp headed monsters and sang a nationalist song that resolved in gurgling noises which I felt was almost a good metaphors until the opera decided to literally have the dead ghosts of murdered Jews appear to finish out the movement and tell you it’s bad to murder people. Yes, dead Jewish ghosts appear and sing to you about how the people who are nationalistic and would kill refugees are bad. To say I was shocked by this play is kind of an understatement and this isn’t even touching on some of the other themes the opera tries to tackle (and handles them in about the same equally unsettling manner) including climate change.
The two main characters don’t actually seem to learn anything. Peter is a tepid centrist, making apologies for his obviously and openly racist parents but does not change and is not punished or challenged. Lea goes down the entire river believing she can return home but realizes she has driven herself into a dark land filled with ghosts but then the play ends. The ghosts are simply around her. I suppose on some level that’s a fine ending for a play as we do not know what will happen with these ghosts but considering it took nearly 3/4 of the run time for her to see a ghost, it felt very abrupt. In the end the only particular thing I can suss out from her story is that her parents were right, people in the old country are really nationalist and awful and haven’t changed at all.
The performances were absolutely great, some of the ways that the opera was presented were innovative and interesting including using live shots from a camera projected onto a screen during the opera and the stage direction of the river and canoe props were interesting. There was a type of electric piano played through most of the first act that I was obsessed with – I could see the musician manning it from my seat quite well and she dazzled but overall the music is clumsy, noisy, and frenetic. Never catchy enough to be memorable and at times so downright unpleasant as to be confusing to listen to.
There was open booing in the theater at the end. I almost left after the first act myself but since I’d traveled halfway across Europe to see this opera I felt like I owed it to myself to watch the terrible thing unfold to the end.
The opera is insulting on many levels including when at one point a refugee is killed in the graveyard by a strange, roving man and then that refugees body is left on stage long after his scene has concluded, until the curtain drops and the stage is moved. There seems to be no reason for this other than to shock the audience with his death. He is a prop as much as the man who killed him, with no name and no life and no identity, he exists only to be killed and make the audience feel guilty at his death.
I wouldn’t bring this up except that it happens again at the end of the play when the spirits of dead (presumably all Jewish) Holocaust victims are resurrected by the MC in order to sing to us that they are dead and have been killed. Not of who or what they were or the reasons they have died but to build guilt in the viewer that Nazism happened.
The truth is that we do not need ghosts. The bones of Nazism are not buried, especially not in 2021 (or 2018 when they was penned). We need no supernatural powers to resurrect their memory and we don’t have to travel down a specific river instead we can go as ourselves and see with our eyes.
The problem here is that this opera confronts nothing and connects with nothing. It’s main point seems to be that fascism and xenophobia have been resurrected but the truth is that they had never gone away. Who is this opera for then? If it offers us nothing but to say “yes, there are still people who would repeat the past gladly” you need look no further than the opening of an art exhibit I attended not twelve hours prior to watching this very opera. It was an exhibit outlining the former Nazi camps in Austria itself and it was highly contested when it opened and people clamored for it to close, to keep that in the past. Well the past is here. The bones of fascism are alive and well, festering above ground in plain view of all.
This opera would have us think of nothing but how those who are harmed by this, MC, are supposed to be ringing the alarm. As if they were responsible for their own oppression and that they alone are the powers which have to stop it as her fiancee, Peter, who sides with his family, does nothing.
The opera doesn’t explore how this makes anyone feel, how it affects anything or anyone, and instead it just makes a mess of the whole thing. The two main characters are so empty and lifeless and the play ends on a note of empty congratulations to the audience for being so enlightened to see it.
Great works comment on our times, sure, but a work like this seems made for no one. If one does not know there are carps among us, then they have not been swimming in the river.
The great folly of this play is that I am a new world Jewish woman who has returned to the old country, which my family warned against and I am no less at home than I was before. The world is made of people, this is not exclusive to any one place that some people would kill others for what they believe to be or not be.
I could rant about how men who do evil deeds are not some sort of other monster or animal but simply people who have been empowered to think they can exert their will on others. I could talk about how in a better version of this opera we would learn why or how MC could connect with the past and their spirits and how she could use that to empower herself and others. Or how Peter could have been used as a character to show either the damage unquestioned loyalty to family can do to the soul or how new experiences can change us but this was not a good opera. It took none of these paths, it asked no questions and it presented me with so little I felt staving when the curtain dropped.
And then I spent a year trying to ring every last thought out of my head but it will still stay with me because of how few opportunities there are for operas to made and staged and how this opportunity was a waste.
How frustrating it was to walk outside the opera house and not two blocks away to see a swastika on a pole and realize what was a warning raid siren might have been missed by someone else.