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[Updated] Critic's Notebook: Recovered Voices -- the Nazis lost this battle too

April 9, 2010 |  2:20 pm
The name, Recovered Voices – the ongoing Los Angeles Opera effort to perform German, Austrian and Czech composers whose works were suppressed by the Nazis – is an American name. It was chosen after much discussion with the L.A. Opera marketing department, music director James Conlon said Thursday night at UCLA, “because Americans want to hear good news.”

Conlon’s remarks were part of his keynote address that closed a two-day Recovered Voices symposium and concert, sponsored by the OREL Foundation (an invaluable online information source about Recovered Voices composers that Conlon helped found) and the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, and organized by Kenneth Reinhard. So here’s some good news: Scholars from near and far are actively involved in a process of mining a rich source of neglected music, making surprising discoveries that occasionally also lead to surprising cultural insights.

Given the academic industry this subject inspires and given a growing interest in the music of such composers as Franz Schreker, Erwin Schulhoff and Alexander Zemlinsky by a new generation of performers, the recovery process appears to be well along. A short concert of gripping chamber pieces by Schulhoff Wednesday night in Schoenberg Hall featured violinist Daniel Hope, pianist Jeffrey Kahane and members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. The OREL Foundation’s calendar listings for April shows that nearly every day this music is being performed somewhere.

Take Saturday night. Los Angeles Opera opens its new production of Schreker’s 1918 “The Stigmatized,” which as “Die Gezeichneten” was a big hit throughout the German-speaking world, not least for its sexual licentiousness, until it was banned in Germany in 1933 and then fell out of the repertory everywhere. The L.A. production by Ian Judge will be the first Schreker staging in North America. Hop on a flight, and you can catch the first Italian production of “Gezeichneten” Wednesday in Palermo as well.

The not so good news is that these works are still a hard sell. Tickets for tonight and the three subsequent performances are available in all price ranges, even though they begin at just $15 and generally go for around half what they cost for L.A. Opera’s current production of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung.”

In a spirited panel discussion, Judge noted just how difficult it is put on something like “Gezeichneten” in tough times. Two years ago, even before the downturn, the opera, which was written for a massive orchestra of 120 players, was originally budgeted for a concert performance, he said.

[Update: According to Conlon, who commissioned the reduction,  the figure of 120 players -- or 130 players that Schrecker’s publisher, Universal Edition – mentions in a news release, is a fiction not based upon the original score and, in fact, only 7 players have been removed.]

But Conlon lobbied hard for a full staging. With a minuscule budget for the physical production (Judge bandied about a figure in the very low six figures) and the need to work around the steeply raked turntable set up for Achim Freyer’s “Ring” production and a scrim, Judge says he was called in at the last minute to save the show. The original director, Olivier Tambosi, had pulled out because of all the constraints, which included no budget for sets, costumes or staging the large chorus.

This was not an argumentative conference, but there certainly were differences of opinion. Judge said he desperately wanted to cut “Gezeichneten” – especially the busy scenes where it is impossible to tell what is going on and all the subplots. But Conlon noted that he has insisted the opera be given complete, at least the first time around, so we can see what’s actually there.

Christopher Hailey, perhaps the leading authority on Schreker, offered persuasive reasons for valuing Schreker’s capacity for sensory overload. With so much going on, he argued, one of Schreker’s accomplishments was to conflate art with life in a new way on the stage that anticipated the kind of cinematic montage that would soon become popular in Germany.

Ironically, Judge said his revelation for saving “Gezeichneten” was to discover he could use the projection system installed for Freyer’s “Ring” and thus produce “cinematic” sets.

[Update: The company claims that the opera was always intended to be staged and that projections were part of the original concept.]

Like many of the composers persecuted by the Nazis, the half-Jewish Schreker (who died of a stroke in 1934 two days before his 56th birthday) was part of the dying tradition of late Romanticism, a tradition the Nazis are often accused of finally killing off because they banned so many of these works and murdered so many of their composers.

In fact, what the Nazis really did kill off was, at least for a while, the taste for late Romanticism. But such generalization is not all that easy, given that the Nazis also banned Modernism, which inspired a postwar avant-garde. Schulhoff’s Second Violin Sonata, Sextet for strings and Duo for violin and cello, played on Wednesday, are all Expressionist pieces from the 1920s. But the Czech composer, who died in a concentration camp in 1941, happened also to be a Modernist. He used jazz and was a committed communist who turned the “The Communist Manifesto” into an oratorio. That work didn’t come up in symposium papers and I doubt that it comes up at L.A. Opera board meetings either.

Of the operas discussed, the ones that sounded most intriguing for a 10-step recovery program were Pavel Haas’ “The Charlatan,” which sounds not only like a hoot but also curiously relevant to the frequent sightings of charlatans in our modern culture, and Stefan Wolpe’s sort-of Dada-ist “Zeus and Elida.” I’d pass, though on Hans Gàl’s “The Sacred Duck.”

Most of all, I wish there would be a way to reconstruct the Kurt Weill/Ben Hecht pageant “We Will Never Die,” which had but a few performances in 1943, including a famous one with several film stars at the Hollywood Bowl. The show apparently inspired Franklin Roosevelt to create the War Refugee Board in 1943. The score is lost. Not all voices can be recovered.

-- Mark Swed

[Update: An earlier version of this story misstated the original director as Darko Tresnjak.]

Related stories:

Daniel Hope is a violinist with a mission

No longer stigmatized

Photo: Violinist Daniel Hope and pianist Jeffrey Kahane at UCLA Wednesday night. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times