Stefan e Lotte no Paraíso: uma ópera escrita a quatro maos
Marcos Lucas and Alan Edward Williams
This article concerns the composition of an opera which is unusual because it is a collaboration between two composers. Generally speaking, composers are solitary creatures, and while they often collaborate with writers and choreographers, it’s very uncommon for them to collaborate with each other on a single piece of music.
The genesis of this project was in May 2010, when Marcos Lucas visited Alan Williams in Salford University, UK. The story of Stefan Zweig was already well known to Marcos, as his wife’s family came from Petropolis, where Zweig spent the last 9 months of his life, in the house at Rua Gonçalves Dias. The story of Zweig’s exile and death had come to Alan Williams’ attention independently via a footnote from a book, co-incidentally by Richard Williams, his brother, about Brazilian architecture, which referred to Zweig’s Brazil: a Land of the Future. As the idea had emerged simultaneously, but independently, of creating a piece of music theatre about Zweig’s Brazilian exile, we began by jokingly discussing a jointly composed work. Gradually these discussions became more serious, as we began to consider how the process might work.
We had a growing sense of confidence in our ability to collaborate on the musical material, as we had known each other as PhD students in the University of Manchester between 1995 and 1999, and had shared concerts of our music. In addition, we had recently both begun pieces written for GNU, the contemporary music ensemble based in Rio de Janeiro, with almost the same harmony, quite by chance. Or perhaps, given our training at Manchester, and our common interest in the modernist music of the Eastern European composers such as Witold Lutoslawski and György Kurtág, not quite by chance. In any case, this co-incidence emboldened us to attempt a joint work.
Stefan Zweig was at one time the most translated author in the world. He came from a wealthy textile manufacturing family who were eminent members of the Viennese Jewish community. After years in the public eye as a writer and intellectual he was forced because of his ethnicity to flee Austria – ultimately abandoning most of his possessions in the process – when it became impossible for him to pursue a career in German letters any longer. He settled initially in London, where he was a close confidant of Sigmund Freud, then in Bath, finally leaving Europe altogether, and living alternately in New York and Brazil. He and his second wife Lotte Altmann spent the last nine months of their lives in Petropolis - a small city which ironically had been settled by Germans in the mid-19th century. He and Lotte were found dead, poisoned by the sleeping drug Veronal on February 22nd 1942, apparently having taken their own lives.
After numerous attempts at developing a scenario, it really only started to take shape once the title had been decided – Stefan and Lotte in Paradise. This title clearly refers to Alberto Dines authoritative biography of Zweig, Morte no Paraíso. The unique feature of this biography is the focus given to the period in exile in Brazil. One searches in vain in other biographies for the detail of this period which Dines is able to provide, and even in recent works such as Oliver Matuschek’s otherwise extremely comprehensive biography, Stefan Zweig: Drei Leben this period of exile and final despair is given little attention. Other writers and creative artists have referred more extensively to the period of the Zweigs’ exile in Brazil, but in ways which did not inspire us with confidence that the historical reality had always taken precedence over artistic imagination. Such are, for example, Silvio Back’s film Lost Zweig, and Laurent Seksik’s Les Derniers Jours de Stefan Zweig. Other works, by the protagonists themselves, such as Zweig’s first wife Friderike’s memoir of Zweig, and naturally, Zweig’s own The World of Yesterday were more useful, as long as we read between the lines, as it were – the juxtaposition of these two widely differing accounts of the same period is revealing.
The necessary next step in crystalising the scenario was in appointing a librettist, someone well versed in theatrical adaptations; fortunately, in Alan Williams’ frequent collaborator Philip Goulding, we had the ideal candidate. Williams and Goulding had already co-written a song cycle, several choral settings, theatre songs and a full-scale oratorio, and it was natural to turn to this existing partnership in creating the scenario. Marcos Lucas was generous enough to adapt himself to this existing partnership; and this had the advantage that the already established working method of the British pair could be adopted in this project. This consisted of Alan Williams providing a sketch of a scenario, which Philip Goulding was free to use, adapt or discard as he saw fit; in turn the same liberty pertained in the way the composers would treat the libretto. It was thanks to the generosity of the University of Salford that development money was provided in order for the libretto to be written.
We ended up with a kind of extended song cycle for two characters – Stefan Zweig and Lotte, his wife. This was to be a semi-staged psycho-drama, along the lines of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. However, as we began to think of the work as a dramatic reality, which needed to be staged, we felt the need for a third character. Before the process of composition began, we asked Philip Goulding for a substantial re-write. During this process, the character of the Zweigs’ neighbour, and fellow German-speaking exile Ernst Feder emerged. Feder’s role in the opera is partly to generate action – the interplay between him and Zweig helps to reveal the relationship between Zweig and his wife; in addition it enabled us to have a framing device in the form of a narrator. This became more important as we considered the role of reminiscence in the opera. Without Feder, there is little reason for Zweig to reminisce, since, one presumes, Lotte would have known all the stories Zweig was going to tell about his own past. The one exception to this observation was that Lotte of course served as Zweig’s secretary, so it was always the plan to use their joint work on The World of Yesterday as a pretext for telling the stories of his past. But this one device, we felt, would rapidly become worn out for audiences, whereas Feder’s presence acts as a sounding board for these reminiscences.
As the main character in an opera, Zweig clearly resembles the figure of the anti-hero, so common in early 20th Century operas, such as Berg’s Wozzeck, or Britten’s Peter Grimes. He does not fit in Brazil, it’s clear – such is the life of the exile. But it’s also clear that his depression is much more deeply rooted than simply having been brought on by exile. He is ultimately alienated from home, from his own language and culture, and from his cosmopolitan ideals. As in Mahler, Zweig self-consciously embodies the figure of the ‘wandering Jew’.
The Zweig Manuscript Collection
Another factor in the development of the scenario was the extensive collection of manuscripts including literature, but especially of music, by the ‘great’ figures of European civilization, such as Mozart, J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner and numerous other stellar figures from the Classical and Romantic tradition. Although Zweig’s manuscript collection was at its largest in Salzburg prior to his emigration to London in 1934, much of the collection survived the war, and is now housed in the British Library. We undertook some research in this archive as preparatory work. This work revealed that the relatively few works of modern music, by Bartók, Berg, Webern and others, which are contained within the collection, are virtually all posthumous additions. Zweig attempted to sell the greater part of his collection in 1936 via the manuscript handler Heinrich Hinterberger. What remained, one can presume, was regarded by Zweig as being particularly valuable. A relatively small collection of songs, arias and instrumental music falls into this category, including Schubert’s An Die Musik; Brahms’ Zigeunerlieder, Mozart’s song Das Veilchen, and Cherubino’s aria from The Marriage of Figaro. This music, alongside music which was contemporary with the action depicted in the opera, including Gustav Pick’s Fiakerlied (which Friderike Zweig claims was being played when she and Stefan first met), and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (mentioned in Zweig’s The World of Yesterday) are referred to in the musical material we developed. This network of musical references allowed us to suggest the multiple layers of historical reference entailed by the subject matter.
The interplay of historical reference in musical material is a idea which formed the basis for much of the composition of the later half of the 20th Century; Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, for example, uses the idea - which was important to Mahler - of borrowing musical material from other pieces in order to show a historical consciousness of the path which has led to the present work. Adorno commented on Mahler’s historical consciousness as being revealed in “fragments and scraps of memory”, and it seemed appropriate for us to use such fragments in what is basically the story of one man’s abandonment of his faith in civilization.
Synopsis of the Libretto
We wanted a one-act opera, lasting about an hour, with no break. Philip Goulding originally suggested six scenes, with the action taking place between Stefan and Lotte. With the addition of the character of Ernst Feder, who takes the role both of protagonist and commentator, this became seven scenes.
Feder, sets the scene and introduces himself as a friend of the Zweigs. Feder’s commentaries are always in retrospect.
Stefan and Lotte arrive in the house in Petropolis, and they sing about the new start in life they are making in Brazil. Lotte is more optimistic that Stefan. They plan to focus on finishing Stefan’s memoire, The World of Yesterday.
Feder suggests that something untoward happened to the Zweigs but doesn’t say what.
The action takes place on the terrace in Petropolis, with sheets of paper everywhere. Stefan and Lotte are working on the memoire, and comment on their solitude, Lotte favourably, but Stefan with some pessimism. Stefan’s gloomier outlook is contrasted with his own more joyful reminiscence of arriving for the first time in Rio de Janeiro in 1936. Rio is viewed as an erotic, sensual location.
Feder expresses his regret for being a part of their lives for only a short time.
Feder visits Stefan and Lotte, bringing some volumes by Montaigne. Lotte has asked Feder to take a photographic portrait, much to the embarrassment of Stefan. He insists she be in the photograph too. Lotte and Feder try to relax Stefan, and he finally dispels the tension by making a joke, pretending to read something ‘of great importance’ for the photograph, which is in fact a shopping list. A new moment of tension arises when they recall (for the purposes of the memoire) a visit to a prison in São Paulo. The ‘inmates’ are here played by the instrumentalists, and as they play in Zweig’s honour Haydn’s ‘Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser’, memories of his former life in Austria flood in, he panics, and then flees the stage.
Feder comments on Zweig’s increasing pessimism, and hints at their subsequent extreme decision.
Feder vists the Zweigs again. Stefan is in a good mood, and hence Lotte is too. Lotte has been trying to teach their maid how to cook Viennese delicacies, and all three are briefly carried back to the old world by this Proustian impulse. Zweig’s thoughts go back to his position in the highest circles of European society, and a list of names of the intellectual elite, and this list is set to the same music as the list of Viennese delicacies. The mood darkens as his thoughts turn to the man who swept all this away. Stefan comments that his mother-tongue feels useless. Lotte comforts him, and Stefan sings a reminiscence of pre-war Vienna. The music combines Viennese kitsch in the form of Girardi’s Fiakerlied, with sombre commentaries by the ensemble.
Feder relates how he and the Zweigs drove to see the carnival in Rio. But even this diversion could not pull Stefan out of his depressive mood.
Feder walks in on Stefan, who holds his head in his hands. We see newsreel reporting the fall of Singapore. He is further devastated because he can no longer write in German to the US. His mother-tongue is now the language of the enemy. He evokes the role call of the dead in Europe; here the libretto parallels the role-call of the great and good of European society in the previous scene. This list ends with Sigmund Freud, and it’s clear that of all of these names, it is Freud’s he reveres the most. Stefan’s only comfort is in the volume of Montaigne which Feder has lent him. Montaigne is Zweig’s last bastion of hope in European civilization. Of his formerly encyclopedic collection of manuscripts by the great Eurpean composers, almost nothing remains. Feder argues that the music still exists, even if Stefan no longer possesses the manuscripts. The discussion is interrupted by Lotte’s fit of asthmatic coughing. Feder, in a mistaken attempt at jocularity, impersonates Zweig’s hero, Freud, and ‘analyses’ Zweig’s obsessive collection of manuscripts through Freud’s theories of anal retention. In doing so, he destroys at one and the same time Zweig’s last hopes which are anchored in both Freud and his collection of ‘great’ manuscripts. Zweig walks off, unable to bear it. Lotte, alone with Feder, sings an apologia for Zweig, and says she’ll follow him ‘wherever he goes’.
Feder confesses in retrospect his own insensitivity, and curses his crass humour.
Feder, realizing what he has done, apologises to Lotte. Stefan comes back, and symbolically returns the volume of Montaigne to Feder: his faith in European civilization is destroyed. Stefan and Lotte speak about their lives in the past tense, as if they are already over. Feder sings the same line, but for him it only means he fears that their friendship is over.
Feder, in retrospect, wonders what happened in their final moments, since he didn’t see them after that. He tells us it was the last time he saw them alive.
Stefan and Lotte sing about their lives and are reconciled to their decision to ‘quietly, with dignity, to leave the stage’.
We don’t see them take the Veronal which killed them, but they drink a final toast to each other, and the opera ends in an evanescent evocation of memory and poetry. Stefan and Lotte’s last duet is a setting of Verlaine, ending with the verse “No more words,/No more light;/ Hope has fled, defeated,/ Towards the darkened sky.”
From the start of the process, we had been thinking about Manchester-based contemporary music ensemble Psappha as possible interpreters of the music. We were both familiar with their work in the UK since having been students together in the University of Manchester in the mid 90’s. Psappha have an exceptional reputation in the area of music theatre, in particular having performed several works by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who serves as their Patron, and recently composed a new music theatre work for them.
We decided to use most of the core instrumentation of this group, clarinet, violin, cello and cimbalom, the Central European hammered dulcimer, as well as percussion. In this way we would create an aural connection with the Klezmer band, but also with various other ensembles, such as that of the Brazilian choro group, and classical chamber music.
Our composition process started with discussion of the libretto, and choosing a scene each to compose independently. Having each sketched a scene, we then analysed our own material, identifying important musical ideas, and exchanged these, with the aim that the other composer would use this material as well as his own. We were also pleasantly surprised at the degree of similarity there existed between this material. For example, Marcos’ note row begins with the same few notes as a motive independently arrived at by Alan. Also interesting was the fact that the Brazilian composer’s music resembled central European modernism more than the European composer’s music, which showed more heritage of Brazilian popular music. From these initial starting points, we aimed at a kind of convergence of material, and style, albeit still allowing a degree of poly-stylistic variety.
Staging and Production
The opportunity to stage the premiere in the University of Salford’s Media City UK building presents a number of possibilities not available in a conventional theatre or concert hall space. Firstly, the Digital Performance Lab combines the flexibility of a Black Box theatre with one of the largest internal projection screens in the region, allowing an immersive use of projected imagery instead of conventional scenery. This means that whereas in a conventional theatre, scene changes would not be possible mid-scene, instantaneous shift of location from Rio de Janeiro to a reminiscence of Vienna suggested by the libretto can be achieved. Secondly, the presence of green-screen TV studios in the same suite as the Performance Lab means that the main character’s alienation can be symbolized using their appearance on screen in real time, interacting with the live singers.
We also intend to include an element of promenade theatre in that the first scenes can take place in the foyer/ café space of the building, with the singers emerging from the audience, giving the element of surprise and immersiveness. If we secure funding, we would aim to give the premiere of the opera in September 2012 in Salford, in the 70th anniversary year of Stefan Zweig’s death.
Dr Marcos Lucas is a composer and Professor Adjunto at Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro- UNIRIO. Dr Alan Edward Williams is Reader in Composition at the University of Salford.
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