Anne Ozorio Interviews Ingo Metzmacher on Die tote Stadt

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

“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

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
Gl¸ck, das mir verblieb and the Pierrot’s Lied have
been recorded by many singers, from Lotte Lehmann to RenÈe 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.

image_description=Ingo Metzmacher [Photo by Mathias Bothor]
product_title=Anne Ozorio Interviews Ingo Metzmacher on Die tote Stadt
product_by=Above: Ingo Metzmacher [Photo by Mathias Bothor]