Cacophony and Plainsong

The Neue Oper Wien is dedicated to the music theatre of the 20th and 21st centuries

Top Stories | Cynthia Peck | March 2013

The 2012 success of Le Grand Macabre is an indicator for the Neue Oper’s upcoming Benjamin Britten opera at the Kammeroper (Photo: Armin Bardelt)

The piece opens with a choir of car horns in exuberant cacophony. After a first incredulous moment it becomes apparent that there is some reason to this madness: In this din of hiccupping hocket there is actually a melody of sorts. And the percussionists positioned behind their battery of instruments, horns and all, look like they are having a great time. It is outrageous, it is fun.

It is the overture to György Ligeti’s only opera, Le Grand Macabre, composed in 1978 (See Book Review of György Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds). The composer wrote this "anti-anti-opera" as a reaction to the general scorn of the operatic genre current at the time. And true to the old mathematical rule that two minuses (anti-anti) make a plus, Macabre is grand romantic opera in the best sense of the word. True despite the hodgepodge of noisemakers in the middle of the orchestra, from doorbells to duck quackers to alarm clocks.

Last October, the Neue Oper Wien performed Macabre at the MuseumsQuartier in one of the huge former riding halls. It was spectacular and wild. Inspired by Pieter Breughel’s grisly fantasy The Triumph of Death, the ostensible plot is the visit of Death, alias Nekrotzar, to the court of Prince Go-Go. Virtuosic singers confront each other with nonsense phrases, there are excesses of alcohol and sex, and in the end the anticipated apocalypse doesn’t happen. While we are amused, we also suspect that behind the mask of this madcap world there is something deeply significant. The message is our mortality.


More new opera 

Walter Kobéra has been the artistic director of the Neue Oper since its founding two decades ago. The Neue Oper is dedicated to just that – new opera – works composed in the 20th and 21st centuries. Kobéra sees this as a political obligation. As he says, "If you are getting public funding then you have to think about what society needs, where there is a deficit."


In Vienna, the contrast between spoken theatre and opera could not be greater. According to Kobéra, statistics tell all: Two years ago, half of the spoken theatre works performed on Vienna’s major stages (Burgtheater, Akademietheater, Josefstadt, Volkstheater) were written after 1945. But at the two major opera houses, the number of new works was frightfully close to nil. There are contemporary opera productions at the Theater an der Wien, but in Kobéra’s opinion it is not enough.

"While there have been sensational changes in the aesthetics of the theatre landscape in Vienna," he says, "music theatre is still lagging behind."

In the past century, opera has witnessed a huge amount of experimentalism and many new directions. But Kobéra doesn’t use the word "modern" for these works. He rather calls them "fitting for our times". And despite having an opera "company", he doesn’t have his own opera house. That’s not something Kobéra is interested in. He "wishes to remain unburdened and flexible." The credo of his ensemble "is not only to explore new worlds of sound, but also new spaces and locations."


Benjamin Britten

The Neue Oper is thus a moveable feast. At the end of March and the beginning of April, its second production of this season is taking place at the Kammeroper. This small, hidden space on a quiet street in the 1st District is quite the opposite of the MQ, and is the perfect setting for the two Benjamin Britten chamber operas – or "church parables" as they were called by Britten – Curlew River and The Prodigal Son. The performances are part of the OsterKlang Festival, the Easter concert series of the Theater an der Wien.

In 1956, Britten took a trip around the world. Japan was to leave an indelible mark. In Tokyo he saw a performance of Noh, a mediaeval form of Japanese theatre. As formalised as a religious ritual, Noh is characterised by being extremely slow: The masked actors move as if they are floating, the rustle of a sleeve is a dramatic moment. The play is accompanied by musicians who sit on the stage: Drums, a flute and a small chorus of chanting men.

The obvious parallel for Britten was the religious chant of Europe: Gregorian plainsong hymns, which became the starting point for his church parables. Curlew River (1964) transplants the Noh play Sumidagawa, a tale of a madwoman searching for her son, to mediaeval England. It opens with Te lucis ante terminum, "To thee before the close of day", a prayer for protection from the night. Bits of this melody are then heard throughout, but the work as a whole is redolent of a far away Japanese age and time. Britten nonetheless did not compose a museum reproduction: The small ensemble creates sounds that are exquisitely new. It is moving; it has a striking beauty.

Kobéra and his Neue Oper Wien must be doing something right. There was standing room only for the late-comers to the Macabre performances, with society ladies jostling with the jeans and T-shirt crowd. So he must be producing works that are fitting for our times. And while the music may range from the racket of the city’s traffic to plainsong’s spirituality, it is music theatre that speaks a language we all understand.


Neue Oper Wien 

Wiener Kammeroper 

Opening night: 25 March, 19:30 

Further performances: 27 & 29 March  

2 & 4 April


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