All you loyal readers of my Kaiserslautern post might recall that one of the operas I saw there was Jonny spielt auf by Ernst Krenek (1900-1991). This was the opera that sparked a remarkably sudden shift in the tastes of German-language opera-goers in 1927, away from the lavish Neo-Romantic extravaganzas of Korngold, Schreker and Strauss, turning instead to the laconic, satirical style of composers like Krenek, Hindemith and Kurt Weill.
Now, thanks to the Neue Oper Wien (New Opera Vienna), I have seen a second Krenek opera, a much later one called Pallas Athene weint (Pallas Athene is crying), which is set in ancient Athens but was very much influenced by Krenek’s experience of America in the McCarthy era of the 1950s. Krenek wrote both the words and the music for this opera, which shows a democracy being taken over by a demagogue.
The not-very-subtle image on the poster (and on the program booklet) shows a statue of Pallas Athene, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, mounted in a urinal.
The opera was performed in the Vienna MuseumsQuartier in Hall E, which is a neo-baroque building under heritage protection (formerly the winter riding hall).
During his career as a composer, Ernst Krenek experimented with different musical styles, including the use of American swing and jazz elements in Jonny spielt auf and various atonal and twelve-tone techniques in many of his other works. The music of Pallas Athene weint (composed when Krenek was in his fifties) is said to be based on a flexible use of twelve-tone sequences. The program booklet says that Krenek invented a different twelve-tone sequence for each of the major characters in the opera. The sequence for Meletos is the reverse of the sequence for Alkibiades, which is supposed to show that they are opposite characters. Most of these musical subtleties were lost on me, as a non-musician, but the two characters do come over as opposites, so perhaps their music had some sort of subliminal effect on me. On the other hand, their words and actions also show that they are opposites, so the music can’t take all the credit.
What I didn’t realize until two days later, when I happened to ride past on a CityBike, was that the statue of Pallas Athene on the opera poster is the same statue that is mounted very prominently in front of the Austrian Parliament building. So the Neue Oper Wien was essentially inviting its audience to compare the events of the opera, in ancient Athens, with contemporary Austrian politics.
Update: In the meantime, I have seen three more operas by Ernst Krenek: Der Diktator (The Dictator), Schwergewicht oder die Ehre der Nation (Heavyweight or the Honor of the Nation) and Das geheime Königreich (The Secret Kingdom). These are three short operas from the year 1928 that Krenek intended to be performed together (like Puccini’s Trittico), although they are not at all similar in tone and subject matter. I saw them several times in the spring of 2017 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, where they were staged by David Hermann.
My photos in this post are from 2016. The text was last revised in 2017.
For more on the stage director David Hermann, see my post Lully and Strauss in Nancy.