Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wozzeck: Alban Berg Teaches about Creating Deep Understanding

Some people are intimidated by foreign films because they don't understand the language.  Some just say they don't want to read their way through a movie.  I usually read the subtitles, but I also find that the most essential content is conveyed pretty clearly even though I don't understand the actual words.  If I miss a line here or there, I don't find it necessary to rewind the movie in order to read what I missed.  I often think that some people just like what's familiar, and they don't care to risk investing time and energy into an unknown quantity.  There's nothing wrong with that, I suppose.

People are not all that different about music.  We turn up our noses at music that isn't our preference, and we settle into listening patterns that are comfortable to us.  A new song in a familiar style is only slightly intimidating, if at all.  Throw an entirely unfamiliar style of music at someone and I think most people would be quick to judge it unappealing.  I think this becomes more true if that unfamiliar style of music is somehow challenging to start with.

Which brings me to Wozzeck.  I had the great pleasure of seeing the Santa Fe Opera production of Alban Berg's first opera this week.  The work met with great success during Berg's lifetime, even though it presents some challenges to the audience.  Musically, the opera does not follow a traditional understanding of tonality.  No major or minor keys, and no melodies that sound like ornamented folk songs.  The story itself focuses on poor people and those who take advantage of them.  The main characters of the story are not really likeable, and at the same time there is something captivating about them.

Santa Fe Opera/photo by Ken Howard
If someone knew absolutely nothing about opera, Wozzeck might not be the first performance you'd think of suggesting, but I believe that Berg might be just right for a 21st century opera neophyte.  The composer knew what he was creating held some challenges, and he made some decisions that actually help the listener follow the dramatic and emotional flow of the opera.  For one thing, the music still sounds like the mood of the characters, even if it isn't overtly predictable.  A lullaby still sounds like a lullaby, and someone descending into madness in a tavern sounds like someone descending into madness in a tavern.  Berg also uses recurring melodic patterns (leitmotifs) that become recognizable even though they may not sound "tonal".  Within each scene, there is also a focus to the music that fits the scene, whether it is an ominous focus on a single pitch in the orchestra or a rhythm that defines the scene.  In other words, the music makes sense. 

Santa Fe Opera/photo by Ken Howard
While another composer deciding to create an "atonal" opera might write a frustrating and illogical barrage of unrelated pitches, Berg allows the external and internal drama of the characters' lives to dictate the music.  He introduces musical conventions that are now familiar to anyone who has heard a movie soundtrack in the past 30 years, because they are so incredibly and effectively evocative.  Even though these elements may not sound like Mozart, they are easy to hear, and they help the music create the appropriate mood for what is happening dramatically.  The music creates a depth of understanding instead of merely being an accompaniment or backdrop for the story.

Berg was doing something new, and he did it in such a way that his audience would have some access points.  Yes, he challenged some well-established expectations, but he led listeners into understanding what he was doing rather than daring them to sit through an entire performance.  I have sometimes done the latter, and not just musically.  In expressing new ideas or challenging old ones, I have sometimes thrown down a gauntlet instead of leading people into understanding what I see.  Sometimes I have even convinced myself that blatant opposition is the only way to get someone's attention.  It's more dramatic to spit venom and dare people to oppose us, but that approach rarely actually gets us where we want to go.  Berg managed to create connection, even when what he was doing was bound to challenge some people's way of seeing (or hearing) the world.  So, it's possible.  Perhaps as the visionaries and thought-leaders that we are or can be, we can do the same thing: create connection and lead people into understanding what we see. 


  1. My first Wozzeck was a revelation to me, perhaps comparably so: I hadn't believed that theater music was capable of so much, in a way so different from (almost) everything that I'd heard before. And Berg's economy of expression is admirable, too. That piece is tighter than a Drum Major's drum. Not one word, not one note, not one second to spare. It's a clean knife struck directly into the heart.

    But Wozzeck was hardly my first opera. I had the benefit of many years of listening, and some "lessons" in Berg's music from a couple of professional musicians, before I heard the piece. (I also had the advantage of the Met's old production, directed by Herbert Graf and designed by Caspar Neher.) I don't have your kind of musical background -- but who does? I sincerely doubt that most of us could make head or tails of Wozzeck as a first opera.

    Now that you've got yours under your belt, I'm eager to hear your reaction to Berg's other opera, Lulu. If only the video of Teresa Stratas, at the complete opera's premiere in Paris, were available!

  2. It really is amazing how tight the whole piece is when it's viewed as intended -- as a staged dramatic work. But I may be over-estimating either the work or the audience to say that Wozzeck could be an enjoyable first opera. I guess I'm not thinking of someone understanding the music from a theoretical perspective, but rather making sense of the whole package from an emotional and dramatic point of view... especially if one is a fan of experimental Indy films.

    Still, I'm willing to accept that someone new to opera would have a hard time with Wozzeck. I don't know when or where Lulu is programmed in the near future, but I'll certainly watch the DVD with fresh eyes and let you know what I think.