Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Die Tote Stadt Insight Panel

Yesterday I made it back into the City from my outrageously inconvenient work location in Burlingame in time to attend the SF Opera's panel discussion on Die Tote Stadt, which opens tonight. On stage at Herbst Theater were

  • San Francisco Opera's Music Administrator Kip Cranna
  • Revival Director Meisje Hummel
  • Baritone Lucas Meachem who sings Frank & Fritz
  • Conductor Donald Runnicles
The one hour discussion was mostly unqualified admiration for Korngold's music & all aspects of this production. If the panel's job was to raise expectations, they succeeded. Mr. Meachem praised the production for engaging both the emotions & the intellect. Maestro Runnicles continually broadened the dicussion of the work, starting with the sheer technical difficulty of the score, due in part to Korngold's over-scoring of the orchestra. To illustrate the problem, he mimed a fish opening & closing its mouth with no sound coming out. So something to listen for is whether we can even hear the singers over the busy orchestration!

We learned from Runnicles that the opera's librettist, Paul Schott, was actually Erich Korngold's father, Julius, who was a feared, ultra-conservative music critic. He compared the younger Korngold's relationship with his father to that of Mozart's with his father, whom Runnicles further identified with the Commendatore. He then went on to claim boldy that the opera can be read as a commentary on post-World War I Austria, unable to come to terms with its fallen glory.

Korngold was acknowleged as a genius by 2 of the greatest musicians of that pre-war era, Mahler & Richard Strauss, & his musical style is rooted in that era, making him appear more backward-looking than 20th century modern. Ms. Hummel noted that Korngold's career in Europe was interrupted when he "had to leave" in the 1930's. He was then completely out of fashion in Austria until the 1990's. I only just learned about this opera a couple of years ago, turned on to it by a German acquaintance. When I bought a CD & started listening, I couldn't understand how I had never heard of it before. It would have been interesting to ask the panel why this opera isn't more well-known.

Runnicles ended the panel with a wonderful compliment to the orchestra. He has already conducted this production in the venerable locales of Vienna & Salzburg, but he said that in neither case did he get the performance he is getting from the orchestra here. He described himself as impressed & humbled by the commitment of the players to the difficulties & the details of the music. I'm looking forward to being at Friday night's performance.

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