Operas by Franz Schreker

Franz Schreker composed nine operas, three of which (the three that are printed in bold in my transparency) were quite popular in his lifetime. I have seen two of these three, and a third that was not so successful at the time.

The orchestra in Zürich tuning up for “Der ferne Klang”

Der ferne Klang (The distant sound) was first performed on August 18, 1912, in Frankfurt. It was an immediate success and made Schreker “famous overnight,” according to the program booklet from another Frankfurt production 107 years later.

Program booklet for Frankfurt 2019

I have seen several performances of Der ferne Klang in two different productions, Zürich 2010 and Frankfurt 2019 and 2023.

As I wrote in my post on the Zürich production, Der ferne Klang is about a young composer named Fritz who leaves his native village to seek a mysterious distant sound that lures him away. His lovely village sweetheart, whom he leaves behind, has to flee the village to avoid a forced marriage to the local innkeeper.

In the second act, the composer and his village girlfriend meet again under very different circumstances. She is the top courtesan of a posh Italian nightclub near Venice, and for a while it looks like they might get together again, but then his moralistic side gets the better of him and he rejects her as a hyped-up prostitute.

The third act takes place in the canteen of an opera house during the third act of the world premiere of an opera called Die Harfe (The Harp), which is very similar to Der ferne Klang. The first two acts have gone very well, but the third is a flop. The opera director wants the composer to revise the third act and give it another try the next season, but the composer is old and discouraged.

Then an elderly lady is brought in. She turns out to be the composer’s long-lost village girlfriend who has been in the audience watching the story of her own life unfold on the opera stage. They have a touching reconciliation scene which gives the composer renewed hope and inspiration. He resolves to revise the third act after all, but then he collapses and dies in her arms.

Program booklets for Darmstadt and Frankfurt

Das Spielwerk (The music box) is a revised version of “The music box and the princess,” which was first performed in Frankfurt and Vienna in 1913. I saw it in Darmstadt in 2003. The composer labelled this opera as a Mysterium, presumably to suggest that the baffling story of a magic music box and a “demonic, lascivious princess” (as the Darmstadt program booklet described her) concealed some sort of deep underlying significance. Like most viewers, I failed to discover any such deep significance, but I did enjoy the music and the colorful staging.

Der Schatzgräber (The Treasure Hunter) was first performed in Frankfurt in 1920. From 1920 to 1932 it was performed 385 times in fifty different cities, making it Schreker’s most successful opera, but most of these performances were in the first six years, from 1920 to 1925. After that, audiences came to prefer the sardonic mood of ‘the new objectivity’ (die neue Sachlichkeit) over Schreker’s mixture of romanticism, magic and medieval fantasy.

Ironically, two of the most popular composers of ‘the new objectivity’ were former students of Schreker’s, Ernst Krenek (composer of Jonny spielt auf, among other operas) and Max Brand (composer of Maschinist Hopkins, which played at 38 different opera houses between 1929 and 1932).

When the Nazis came into power in 1933, they banned the works of all three of these composers (Schreker, Krenek and Brand) along with the works of most other leading composers of the time, such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alexander Zemlinsky and Kurt Weill, on the grounds that their music was ‘decadent’ or that they were Jewish or half-Jewish or were married to someone who was Jewish or half-Jewish.

See more opera lists by composer.
See also: The lost generation of opera composers.

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