Working man's opera

The debut of 'Woyzeck' is the completion of George Buchner's 200 year old opera.

Wozzek (photo credit: Gadi Dagon)
(photo credit: Gadi Dagon)
If your idea of opera is sumptuous scenery and costumes and the stirring sounds of familiar vocal pieces, then you may be in for an exciting rite of passage at the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv next week.
The musical spectacular on offer is Wozzeck by Austrian composer Alban Berg. It was written over a protracted period, from 1914 to 1922 – with World War I disrupting the creative process – and its first performance was in 1925. Berg based the libretto on a play called Woyzeck, the surviving text of which was written by German playwright Georg Büchner in 1836. However, the playwright’s untimely death in 1837, at the age of just 23, left the manuscript incomplete, and there have been various attempts to augment the truncated work over the years.
The confluence of Büchner’s writing and Berg’s score has spawned a powerful work. Wozzeck is generally regarded as the first avant-garde operatic work and a prime example of atonality. Berg was a disciple of Arnold Schoenberg, who pioneered various innovations in the field of atonal music, and Berg used this approach to convey the emotions and cerebral processes of his characters.
The subject matter of both the play and opera addresses some tough social issues and, considering the era in which it was first staged, it must have been quite startling. Woyzeck relates the story of a downtrodden member of 1830s German society, who takes some desperate measures in response to unfortunate developments in his personal life. The eponymous character is a low-ranking soldier stationed in a provincial German town. He lives with his common-law wife Marie, with whom he has a child out of wedlock – hence the church’s refusal to recognize the union.
As the couple struggles to get by, Woyzeck earns some extra cash by performing menial tasks for an army captain, who treats him badly, and serving as a guinea pig in a local doctor’s cumulatively damaging medical experiments. As Woyzeck’s health begins to deteriorate, Marie directs her amorous attentions to a handsome drum major. After being humiliated by his wife’s lover, Woyzeck kills Marie.
The play has been completed in various forms.
Some versions have Woyzeck drowning in the pool in which he cleans off the murder implement, while in others he deliberately drowns himself.
The cast and crew of the upcoming production – which will run from November 26 to December 7 – include David Stern and Daniel Cohen, who will split conducting duties, and a double lineup of vocalists: American bass-baritone Philip Horst and British baritone Julian Tovey alternating the male lead, and Israeli soprano Merav Barnea and Dutch- Swiss mezzo-soprano Maria Riccarda Wesseling playing Marie.
German director Manfred Beilharz, who will oversee the production, knows the work better than most.
“I directed the first Israeli stage production of Wozzeck. It was done for the first time here seven years ago,” says the 74-year-old director when we meet during a break in his packed rehearsal schedule at the Tel Aviv opera house.
“It was done before that as a concert, but not stage.
That was a follow-up to the production I directed in 2003, at [the Hessisches Staatstheater in] Wiesbaden [in Germany], where I am artistic and managing director. I opened the annual May Fest at my theater, in 2003, with Wozzeck.”
The May Festival is one of the world’s most prestigious theater, dance and music events, and hosts acts from all over the globe.
Beilharz has a long-standing working relationship with the Israeli Opera company and with the Cameri Theater, and says he always looks forward to working on Berg.
“I am especially fond of this opera,” he says.
The German director has an intimate knowledge of the original play, as well as the operatic rendition, and says he is equally enamored of both. He adds that he also appreciates Berg’s take on Büchner’s drama.
“Alban Berg had a very strong feeling for the play, and how to arrange the different scenes, because Woyzeck, the play, is unfinished,” he says. “It has four or five different sketches, and every director, when he does the play, has the duty to make his own selection [regarding] the sequence.”
That means that the person in charge of the production has his work cut out for him, to portray the Büchner manuscript in a coherent manner. “There are some scenes that are very contradictory – you can take this thing or another, and you can change the storyline a little bit, and take a different choice.”
Beilharz says he approves of Berg’s avenue of exploring the play. “For me, Berg’s choice is very convincing.”
ALTHOUGH BRIEF, Woyzeck is an extraordinary play, and the nature of the source material leaves it up to the director to decide where to take the work. One can relate to the play as a naturalistic work or an expressionistic enterprise; the storyline may be about class structure, or it could be about human as opposed to bestial behavior. It also examines relationships, and offers some commentary on the military and on the morals of scientific endeavor.
Beilharz says the Büchner work is a landmark creation.
“The play itself is very strong, because it shows a mentally handicapped man who is a poor soldier,” he explains. “The basis for the opera, and especially for the drama, is a criminal case. It was the first time, in dramatic German literature, that a man of the lowest classes of society was the hero of the story. So the opera is very revolutionary on many levels.”
Despite the challenging source material, the Berg portrayal met with almost universal approval.
“[Adherents of] German expressionism, symbolism and realism all said we are sons of this work by Büchner.
Berg saw the play in Berlin and was very impressed with it, and it was his first opera,” says Beilharz.
In fact, Berg sought the approval of his mentor before putting pen to sheet music paper.
“Yes, he asked Schoenberg whether he should take on the project, and Schoenberg said he should go ahead, although I’m not sure he really believed Berg would manage it, and he was surprised that Berg produced a masterpiece,” says the director.
Beilharz notes that the dynamics of the play are more akin to a later era. “The scenes are always very short. You just jump into a new situation, like nowadays, [in] film scripts. Also, you don’t have explanations about where you are, you just land in a new situation.”
The composer, says the director, did an excellent job in marrying the staccato storyline with the score, as well as incorporating contemporary musical elements with more tried-and-tested emotive staples of the operatic discipline.
“Musicologists have studied Berg’s works – he wrote sonatas, etc., all the well known formats, but with modern things in it. But when you see the opera, it is like the big well-known operas. It touches you very strongly because he always found different types of modern symphonic music to characterize the different characters. The music is really special.”
Preceding the run of opera performances will be a production of Woyzeck at the Cameri Theater on November 24 at 11 a.m., and several of the performances will be followed by discussions and questions-and-answer sessions with the members of the cast.
For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 or