Three chamber operas based on the 'Three Minute Plays' by Thornton Wilder
Libretto by Thornton Wilder; German version by Herbert Herlitschka (E,G)
This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.
World premiere complete
Theater (Concordia), Bremen
Mark Daniel Hirsch, director / Bremer Theater / Catherine Rückwardt
With his thinking rooted in theatrical categories, Detlev Glanert has always been attracted to opera, notably to those who for him embody this art form – Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. His distinct sense of organic musical development, of the way a musical work breathes, truly comes to fruition in its scenic representation. In his works for musical theatre, he prefers subjects that place archetypal situations into historical or geographical distance in order to reveal their current relevance from afar. Besides Glanert’s sense of vocal lines, musical expression of character and effective use of instrumental colour, it is the artificiality of these subjects coupled with the suggestive techniques of theatre that make these works so appealing.
As in the historic fairy-tale subjects of his two operas Leyla und Medjnun (Layla and Majnun) op. 16 (1987–88) and Der Spiegel des großen Kaisers (The Mirror of the Great Emperor) op. 24 (1989–93), Glanert’s third work for musical theatre, Drei Wasserspiele (Three Water Plays), whose first part was written as early as 1986, once more draws upon subjects that showcase exemplary situations as a kind of experiment. Glanert found inspiration for the text in Thornton Wilder’s Three-Minute Plays, in which calculated artificiality and atmospheric charm combine in a way similar to his music. The consistent cast of characters in the three pieces as well as their shortness lent themselves to the form of chamber opera in which the characters act as if put under a microscope. Despite being test objects, they are so close that they invite identification. The artificial mechanisms react in a profoundly human way.
Like Giacomo Puccini’s Il trittico, the Water Plays combine three pieces of very different character that represent the three basic tenors of classical theatre, although in mutual refraction: fright, grief and pleasure. The pieces are neither united by time nor by place: Leviathan op. 10 (1985–86) is set on the Mediterranean in the Renaissance period; Der Engel, der das Wasser bewegte op. 30 (The Angel that Troubled the Waters, 1994) is based on the Biblical legend of the healing pool of Bethesda and is not rooted in any specific time; Der Engel auf dem Schiff op. 31 (The Angel on the Ship, 1994) takes the audience to the Atlantic in the 1920s. Correspondingly, the language and music are different, lending each of the three operatic settings their particular colour.
Beyond consistent form and characters, the three pieces are more noticeably linked to each other than Puccini’s through numerous common motifs that create a close inner relation. Their pivotal element is water, which traditionally carries a variety of symbolic meanings, including aspects of purification, threat, death, homecoming and dissolution. Hope is another motif that plays an important part in all three pieces: in the first, it is the prince’s hope for rescue and the mermaid Brigomeide’s hope for a human soul; in the second, hope for healing; and in third, hope for rescue from distress at sea again. Another crucial element is the relation between the real and the unreal in the juxtapositions of humans and mythical creatures, humans and angels, and humans and idols. Finally, each of the three pieces involve absent characters who do not appear other than in conversation but nevertheless seem to be driving forces of the action, such as the lute-player Amadeo who everybody is longing to see, the "mistaken invalid’s" ill children, or the unatoned victim of the three shipwrecked characters.
In a manner similar to this dense use of dramatic motifs, the musical arrangement of all three short operas is based on a rigorous principle that extends the organising function of the number 3 over all levels. The three-voice vocal ensemble consisting of sopranos, tenors and basses is accompanied by a small orchestra divided up into three instrumental groups of three instruments each: flute/clarinet/horn; piano/percussion/guitar; viola/cello/double bass. At times, these groups appear to be associated with individual characters; in Leviathan, for example, the winds identify with the mermaid, the "human" voices of the strings belong to the prince, and the sea monster is accompanied by percussive sounds. Each opera is opened by a string solo: a cello simulating the prince’s screams for help in Leviathan, a viola illustrating the mysteriously drowsy atmosphere at the pool in The Angel that Troubled the Waters, and a double bass making rough sounds to depict the ruinous state of the shipwrecked trio during the storm in The Angel on the Ship. There is a transition from each instrumental prelude to a vocalising chorus, with the protagonists still without an identity but slowly awaiting the musical expression of their roles that takes shape afterwards.
Regarded in sequence, however, the three pieces reveal an interesting pattern of change in the relation between these motivic continuities, in which the triptych is superimposed with a cross-shaped structure. In the first piece, hopes are deceived: the prince is never rescued; Brigomeide is forever denied a human soul; Leviathan is forced to live in poisoned yet sustaining waters. The impossibility of their hopes being fulfilled results from the fact that each of them remains true to themselves, not least due to their knowledge of the imperfection of their existence. At the pool of Bethesda, hope for healing is rife. One person, called the "mistaken invalid", is granted healing. His affliction, however – a sick hand – is nothing compared with the boundless emotional suffering of the "newcomer", who is denied healing. The "mistaken invalid" recovers only to quietly continue his wrong, materially oriented life; the "newcomer", a doctor, remains ill because his awareness of his own illness enables him to pursue a right way of living that is helpful for others. The three shipwrecked characters see their hopes fulfilled after worshipping the "Angel on the Ship", but their rescue is a farce since it came at the price of sacrificing truth; consequently, they hasten to remove the traces of their short moments of insight into the misery of their lives.
A similar reversal of polarity takes places with regard to the settings. The first piece is set on the water, which in this instance carries meanings of death and dissolution. The boundaries between life and death are blurred. In the second piece, we are at the edge of a pool that promises healing from disease. Life and death are juxtaposed. The three mariners in the final piece are stranded on their shipwreck, denying death. However, in all three pieces other places are mentioned, places where the absent characters are located. The lute-player Amadeo, who, significantly, lives in Venice and is invoked by the prince in his distress, would appear to offer rescue. The "mistaken invalid’s" children are sick themselves, hoping to be healed by the doctor. The murdered captain who was deliberately denied drinking water; the uncle in Amsterdam from whose imminent death the ruthless seaman hopes to profit; the Portuguese man who was once robbed by the ship’s cook – all of these are images of suppressed guilt and death. Indeed, while the real scenes point from death through illness as a borderline situation towards rescue, the imaginary scenes take the reverse path.
Implied in this process is a change in the relation of the individual levels of reality. In Leviathan, humans and sea creatures represent irreconcilable antagonisms. Communication is impossible because each of them belong to entirely different worlds; there can be no rescue. "The Angel that Troubles the Waters" says to the doctor, who is the only one able to see him: "The angels themselves cannot convince mortals such as a single human can, who the wheels of life have broken." There is a dialectic between the two worlds: communication only succeeds because the doctor has something in common with the angel: healing power. He can heal others but cannot be healed himself. "The great god Lilli", the figurehead worshipped by the shipwrecked characters, is but a projection of their own misery and therefore just as superficial as Brigomeide’s yearning for the prince. At the moment of their rescue, however, she turns into an unbearable mirror-image that endangers the happy ending.
The crucial point of the Water Plays is therefore the second piece with its open ending, where the real and imaginary worlds correspond. Here, Glanert’s music is most expressive in depicting the state of mind of his characters. By contrast, in the first and third pieces the musical style is characterised by a certain aloofness, signifying the real or assumed division of spheres. In Leviathan, the music helps to stage the scene rather than provide psychological depth: it imitates the movement of the water and accompanies Brigomeide with affected figures in the winds; Leviathan’s appearance is underlayed by a grotesque, rumbling polka; and the actual human tragedy is commented on with strikingly cool indifference. The relinquished dreams and desires in The Angel on the Ship find their musical equivalents in the stylised topoi of popular music, such as Charleston, tango and rumba, to whose rhythms the three protagonists rattle out their prayers. The hasty conclusion of this last opera has a both comical and disillusioning effect.
In his foreword to the Three-Minute Plays, Thornton Wilder wrote: "An artist is one who knows he is failing in living and feeds his remorse by making something fair, and a layman is one who suspects he is failing in living but is consoled by his successes in golf, or in love, or in business." This is the core of the Water Plays: rescue from life’s strangeness is possible only at the cost of self-delusion, but the absurd beauty of artistic creation provides the certainty that there will always be new things that do not fit into this world but find a place in it nevertheless. Neither Thornton Wilder nor Detlev Glanert would deny that the Water Plays are entirely artificial creations. Glanert’s sensual but at the same time unsentimental music intensifies Wilder’s disillusioning yet marvellous theatre. Glanert is a magician of sound who does not refuse us a glance into his laboratory. We know, and it is clearly shown as well, that behind the magic of sound an entirely unromantic machinery combined with solid craft are in operation. And yet we are happy to fall under the spell and do not even feel deceived. For this is the space for Brigomeide to encounter the prince, for the shipwrecked characters to become aware of themselves in the mirror-image of the figurehead, for the doctor to ally himself with the angel. In this kind of space, the strangeness of the familiar ceases to be threatening, and in the synthesis of reality and fantasy we become aware of the madness of being able to live in a world that will always remain mysterious and is yet our home.
Klaus Angermann (translation: Andreas Goebel)
For information on the single works, please go to:
> Der Engel, der das Wasser bewegte
> Der Engel auf dem Schiff
"If one wished to let someone hear what ‘gesture’ means in music, Glanert’s music, such as Three Water Plays, would provide an ideal listening experience. the music is all gesture: in the physicality of its great exuberance, in its tactile three-dimensionality, and the pronounced mobility of all its parameters." (Günter Matysiak, Das Orchester, Sep 1995)
"An elegant chamber play; one might even say, in the tradition of Ariadne. Yet each of the three pieces has its own distinctive musical expression: formal and distinctive style in the Renaissance fairy tale of Leviathan, the painful exploration of the state of mind of those seeking healing in the Biblical legend of the middle piece, and oppressive comedy through the inclusion of popular music in the prayer ritual of the satyric games in the ship-wreck episode. All is variable in the extreme, but held together by a hand that is unmistakably original." (Gerhart Asche, Opernwelt, Jul 1995)