Avner Dorman: My first opera, in rehearsal

2:15, 18th November 2016

Composer Avner Dorman blogs from rehearsals of his new opera, Wahnfried, at the Karlsruhe Staatstheater

Not many people get to write an opera, I get that, and even those of us lucky enough to have that invitation don’t get to do it very often. You can’t, really, it’s such a mammoth task, involving every fibre of your being (it feels like that, anyway) for several years at a time. There’s a reason that composers like John Adams and Thomas Ades, for all their great success in their operas, only come back to the form after breaks of years at a time.

But the experience is so special, and so fulfilling, I still recommend it to everyone! But because not everyone gets the chance, and I want to share my experiences with others who might enjoy finding out what it’s like “from the inside”, I’m very grateful to Classical Music Magazine and to Opera Now for offering me this blog so that I can take you on the final leg of this journey with me.

“This journey” refers to the staging of my first opera, Wahnfried. It tells the story of the English failed scientist Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a man obsessed by the late Richard Wagner – to the extent that he actually married one of Wagner’s daughters and want to live in Bayreuth where he became seen by Wagner’s widow Cosima as one of the true ‘keepers of the flame’ of her husband’s memory. More insidiously, he thought he should be one of the great thought-leaders of Europe and wrote a long book, published in 1899, The Foundations Of The Nineteenth Century, in which he codified for the first time the linked ideas of Aryan superiority and Jews being responsible for all the world’s ills. Chamberlain didn’t have the charisma or the intelligence to become what he wanted to become, but he found a willing protégé of sorts in Adolf Hitler, who regarded the older man as a mentor and often quoted his book. Which goes to show what can happen when mediocrity, ego and ambition come together in a person…

So. Blog one. The actual composing is done now and, although that’s collaborative at times – Justin Brown and Keith Warner, who will variously conduct and direct the world premiere at the Karlsruhe Staatstheatre in January, have both had helpful things to say – it is essentially a solitary thing. Where opera comes to life, I’m finding, is in the rehearsal, where music truly meets theatre.

In recent weeks I’ve been to three days of piano rehearsals with the principal cast and, most recently, I had two full two-and-a-half-hour rehearsals with the orchestra. And something hit me immediately that you don’t get in your composing studio – laughter. Plenty of it. And the relief of that swept over me like a wave.

Because I knew that I was writing absurdist opera, trying to portray Chamberlain in a grotesque way because he is so terrible and racist and hateful. Grotesquerie was my way of getting into the psychology of this, how he became this, how he was also simultaneously a failure, and how it becomes dangerous. And the singers often just broke out in laughter. Grotesqueness is, at least in this case, truly funny apparently! You don’t get to make people laugh out loud often as a composer.

At one point, the character of “the Kaiser” enters to a ridiculous march – I request that some of the instruments play out of tune, phrases just dribble out and so on. The orchestra burst out laughing and couldn’t go on playing, so we had to start that bit again. Soon afterwards when the character talks about a new car horn that plays the thunder motif from Das Rheingold and I’ve score that motif, clashing with another motif from Tristan und Isolde and yet another from Siegfried (all at the same time!) everyone laughed again. Me too this time. I hadn’t realised that it would be that kind of funny.

Something together different happens in piano rehearsal with Matthias Wohlbrecht, the excellent singer playing Chamberlain. He came to a line where the character talks about having been injured in the war and Matthias asked me to write him a bit more space in the transitional passage leading up to it. So we worked something out, and as he sang those notes it was so moving I could hardly believe this was the music I had written. Suddenly we were siding with him as a human being. At just that moment we don’t see him as a racist, or a bad guy, he’s just someone in real pain. And hearing that I knew that of course – of course – the moment needed the space. I knew also how important it was not to dehumanise Chamberlain. That people watching should never lose sight of the fact that this was a human being and to go in the dreadful direction he chose is a human instinct.

One last thought for now. This opera has been programmed alongside the new Karlsruhe Ring cycle, which Justin Brown is also conducting. And in the orchestral rehearsals for Wahnfried he brings a Wagnerian expansiveness to the orchestral fabric. Justin knows the score perhaps as well as I do at this point, down to the minute details, so I can already see that he knows just how to point the Wagnerian quotes in the piece, and beyond that how to find a richness and a transporting, cumulative power that is Wagnerian in feel. And that catches the charm of Houston, perhaps explaining why people followed him so much. Perhaps it even starts to give a sense of why people followed Hitler.

Not that the whole score is suffused in Wagnerian colours, this being satire after all, but I’m thrilled at the way that Justin brings out the moments where they are there and he knows how to make them so vivid as to overwhelm the senses (which is of course very Wagnerian).

I’ve come away from those rehearsals reeling, and finally perhaps understanding how an opera isn’t really an opera until you see it ‘on its feet’. What you write in the score is only part of the picture, and that’s as true for the composer as for anyone.

So – next rehearsal in Karlsruhe is in December, when Keith Warner will present his concept and we’ll have the whole ensemble including chorus. Lots of work to do before then though and I will report here on my progress! Thanks for joining me on this amazing journey.

Biography:  Avner Dorman is an Israeli-American composer, whose music is performed by many of our leading conductors, among them Riccardo Chailly, David Robertson, Zubin Mehta, Robert Spano, Christoph Eschenbach, Marin Alsop and many others. Among his best-known works are the percussion concerto “Frozen In Time”, “Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!”, his “Elef” Symphony and his Mandolin Concerto (written for Avi Avital). He is currently writing a double violin concerto for Gil Shaham and his wife Adele Anthony. Avner Dorman is also the music director of the CityMusic Cleveland orchestra.

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