VIENNA, Austria (AFP) — World premieres are something of a rarity at the Vienna State Opera, but preparations are underway this week for the first performance of a new piece tackling the refugee crisis and the rise of far-right populism in Europe.
It has been more than eight years since the State Opera, one of the world’s most important music theaters, commissioned and premiered a brand new work.
The 44-year-old Austrian composer Johannes Maria Staud says being asked to write an opera for such a prestigious house was “invigorating.”
“It really focuses the mind,” he told AFP.
Staud has already written two operas and his third, “Die Weiden” (The Willows), is being premiered on Saturday.
The 135-minute work, scored for huge orchestra and live electronics, is based on a short story by British horror writer Algernon Blackwood and the novel “Heart of Darkness” by British writer, Joseph Conrad.
The libretto, by German poet Durs Gruenbein, tells of a pair of young lovers, Lea and Peter, who go on a canoe trip into the country of Peter’s childhood.
The further they paddle into a region whose inhabitants view everything foreign with suspicion, the fiercer the tensions between the two of them become.
In a joint interview with AFP, both the composer and the librettist said they could not have foreseen the current global political situation when they received the commission four or five years ago.
“But we knew even then that now was not the time to write an escapist piece,” Staud said.
He said he found it “deeply alarming” that a far-right populist party, such as Austria’s anti-Islam, anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPOe), should be in government in a western democracy.
Gruenbein noted that at the time they began work on the piece, “there was already a lot of debate about migration. People were already using terms such as ‘streams of refugees.'”
But the pair of artists could not have anticipated “this spiral of hatred, the resentment, the unsayable becoming sayable,” Staud said.
Gruenbein insisted “Die Weiden” was not intended as “a piece of political theory” with which to lecture the audience from a soapbox.
“It wasn’t a narrative that we went looking for. It was already there, all around us,” he said, while Staud felt he was driven by an almost “existential” need to write it.
Neither was it the two men’s intention to be controversial, “even if we know that the piece will divide” Vienna’s culturally conservative audiences, Staud said.
“We’re not looking to drive another wedge between people. Because it’s precisely a wedge that the populists are seeking to drive through the whole of society.”
Nonetheless, a feeling of outrage over today’s politics was a key factor in the creative impulse, he said.
It was the first time he had ever used musical quotations from another composer, in this case Richard Wagner, in any of his works, Staud added.
Wagner was “the central fixed star of Germany’s dark romanticism” and “a great composer.”
But even though Wagner was also was “an artist from whom I distance myself in many points” — particularly with regard to his anti-Semitism — Staud also felt the need to reappropriate him from far-right, Nazi and identitarian thinkers.
“We’re taking back how we interpret Wagner and what his music means to us,” Staud said.
“Die Weiden” will receive an initial run of five performances and is being revived next season.
The staging is by German director, Andrea Moses, with German conductor and contemporary music specialist, Ingo Metzmacher, in the pit.