The 98-Year-Old Rookie

Illustration by Justin Gabbard

Unappreciated artists often put their trust in future generations, which is not wise: Posterity can be arbitrary and cruel. It’s taken 98 years for Franz Schreker’s brilliantly florid opera Der Ferne Klang (The Distant Sound) to make its way to America, and the handful of performances it received at Bard’s SummerScape festival may not be enough to launch a full-blown revival. Still, the production, directed by Thaddeus Strassberger and conducted by Leon Botstein, delivered the opera’s blast of intensity with enough affective power to make it clear that we’ve all been missing out.

Its obscurity is mostly a matter of timing. A hit in Frankfurt in 1912, it made its composer famous, but Schreker couldn’t keep pace with musical fashion, and suffered as German anti-Semitism surged. He died at 55 in 1934, leaving nine operas but no keepers of the flame. Only lately has his reputation been flickering to life: This year, the Los Angeles Opera, the Zurich Opera, and Berlin’s Staatsoper have all staged his work.

Der Ferne Klang is hardly a perfect opera. The young composer stuffed it full of existential claptrap, superfluous subplots, and characters who seem to have wandered onstage from some other show. Fritz, a composer, walks out on Grete, his faithful country girl, to track down the ethereal music tintinnabulating in his mind. Thus abandoned, Grete takes over the opera but loses all hope, plummeting down the ladder of respectability into prostitution. This unruly plot calls for scanty costumes and makes scantier sense, though Strassberger somehow corralled it into clarity. But then lack of dramaturgical rigor is endemic in opera, and here it’s fused with a deliberate embrace of chaos. Act Two, set in a bordello in Venice, interweaves darkness and froth. It opens at a jaunty Mediterranean canter, soon overlaid with a chorus of angelic prostitutes, a gypsy band, a crooning gondolier, and a nightclub waltz, all gradually building into a gloriously festive cacophony. Memories of other operas keep flitting across the stage, but the total effect resembles Robert Altman’s Nashville, in which the camera glides through a swirl of words and music, flitting from song to song and from conversation to half-overheard exchange.

Botstein, who more than any other conductor has made it his mission to correct history’s oversights, led a performance good enough to suggest what a better one might sound like. It was all there: fervent Straussian textures, chill, quartzlike chords slicing through the downy blur, the bittersweet melodies, the delicate tinkling of that elusive Klang. But, like Fritz, I found myself listening right through what I was actually hearing to an imaginary music beyond—a richer, more nuanced future performance, at, say, the Metropolitan Opera.

Der Ferne Klang
By Franz Schreker.
Bard Summerscape.

The 98-Year-Old Rookie