As music director of the Vienna State Opera and then (briefly) of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Gustav Mahler was steeped in the form. Despite this, he never wrote an opera. The closest Mahler came is probably the hour-long finale of the Eighth Symphony, which sets the final scene from Part Two of Goethe’s “Faust.” The Vienna State Opera dedicated its 2022-23 season to Mahler to mark 125 years since his appointment. It opened, in October 2022, with Calixto Bieito’s “Von der Liebe Tod,” a “Mahler Opera” whose raw materials are the early fairy tale cantata “Das klagende Lied” (composed when Mahler was just 19) and the 1904 song cycle “Kindertotenlieder.” It was revived at the Vienna State Opera in May, when I saw the production. 

“Von der Liebe Tod” follows Romeo Castellucci’s realization of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 at last summer’s Aix-en-Provence Festival. Bieito, like Castellucci, takes music best-known in the concert hall and gives it the operatic vestments of sets, costumes, lights, and concept. Such stagings are distinct from the many musical works repurposed by choreographers, like Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s “Goldberg Variations” with Pavel Kolesnikov, or the Martin Schläpfer realization of Brahms’s “Ein Deutsches Requiem.” “Das klagende Lied” is a fable about two brothers: good slain by evil for a flower that wins the love of a princess; a bone carved into a flute by the murdered man sings his sorrow, and his song eventually tears down the castle the evil brother won through primal murder. Bieito’s staging takes its thematic cues from James Bridle’s New Dark Age, a kind of “Dialectic of Enlightenment” for the digital epoch; in Bieito’s hands, the story of “Das klagende Lied” becomes an allegory of technological corruption, pace Adorno. 

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It was built on bold images. The curtain went up to a completely white stage setting, both disconcertingly clinical and vestal. The centerpiece of Rebecca Ringst’s designs was a great tangle of multicolored tubes—the cross section of cut electrical cable—that dangled from the flies, like a maypole for the digital age. 

The ideas are strong enough: we are reminded that Mahler lived in a period that saw the Enlightenment worm turn, with a growing unease about the character of reason and technology. The lyrical nostalgia of Mahler’s music is a longing for a world with softer edges and places of retreat; its ghosts are inside the machine, not in the depths of the Romantic forest. But in this respect, “Von der Liebe Tod” was more seminar than theater. The central tangle was so huge the chorus struggled to move around it, and it rendered the stage a strangely inert space. Coupled with the stop-start motion of Mahler’s narrative, and some rather clunky chorus moves, the piece felt stodgy and effortful.

Some sung concert works have an ambiguous relationship to the stage, evoking theatricality while never actually putting on the motley. “Das klagende Lied” sits in this gray area. As a cantata, it occupies the same territory as Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust” or Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” in that the music of all is wound around a narrative thread, with the contours of a story and named characters—though with a looser dramatic momentum and a more symphonic sweep than one would find in action-driven opera. Such pieces can be translated to the stage, but, as Bieito’s “Von der Liebe Tod” shows, not without the risk of malapropisms. 

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“Kindertotenlieder,” the final third, did work. Its lamentation took place in the ruins of the technological and fratricidal cataclysm of “Das klagende Lied.” Split between two singers, Bieito created a spare and compelling dramatic situation. The boy soprano from “Das klagende Lied” was now wrapped in muslin cloth for burial. We saw two parents broken by loss who failed to console each other, until the feathery head voice of bass-baritone Florian Boesch closed out the final peroration of “In diesem Wetter.” The fragility of the sound was a glimmer of hope—perhaps we can get over loss—but also a self, made ghostly through grief. The dramaturgical lesson was clear: when it comes to putting concert repertoire on stage, the more narrative, the more potential for clutter. 

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Works that have grief at the center seem especially attractive to directors testing this formula. Bieito has also created treatments for Requiems by Benjamin Britten and Giuseppe Verdi. Castellucci’s Mahler Two saw the composer’s soaring metaphysics brought down to earth in a cathartic exhumation of a mass grave, painstakingly carried out in real time. In 2010 and 2014, Peter Sellars created “ritualizations” of both Bach Passions for the Berlin Philharmonic, which dwell in the fuzz between theatrical artifice and authentic rite. 

Another work of mourning got dramatic treatment recently at the English National Opera: Isabella Bywater’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” a staging of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, the surprise crossover classical hit of the 1990s. Nicole Chevalier sang its triptych of lamentations in Polish: a Stabat Mater-like cry of grief from a mother, a poem scratched on the wall of a Gestapo prison, a Silesian folk lament by a mother for a son lost in war. 

ENO’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” with Nicole Chevalier • Photo © Clive Barda

Bywater designed the “Symphony” at ENO as well as directing it, and imposes no unifying plot; the narrative is psychological and internal. But the set modulates from beginning to end. At first the wedge-shaped box’s walls look as solid as concrete. As the piece unfolds, these walls are revealed to be a dense weave of ropes. In the final movement, they suggest a forest through which the unnamed mother searches for her son’s body. The sheets the soprano cradles like a swaddled child in the first movement, a marker of her loss, become a place the dead soldiers of the final movement can nestle in eternal rest, in a studied elaboration of Goya’s “Disasters of War.” 

Calling the show a triptych underlines the painterly instincts of the design, which in this ruminative piece—three slow movements, the first of which consists of nearly 15 minutes of instrumental introduction—lets the music draw iconographic breath. Its overall structure is like a set of panels for slow contemplation: Hell, Purgatory, and in the final tableau, a radiant celestial light. Reference points include Bosch’s “Ascent of the Blessed” and William Blake.  

Photo © Clive Barda

Abstract visual art was key in opera’s development. At the turn of the century, Adolphe Appia argued scenography and design were active ingredients in opera in his post-Wagnerian reckoning with the artform’s capabilities; lighting and set were needed to externalize rich inner realities embodied in the shifting sands of Wagner’s through-composed scores. In calling for “expressive” rather than “realistic” sets, against Wagner’s own preference for naturalism, Appia’s symbolist approach recognized opera as a non-naturalistic form, something which both traditionalist ideologues and opera newcomers often struggle to swallow. 

“Watching an installation is not far from what I’ve started with here,” Bywater tells me. “Some things are more like a show, and some are more intense. You’re looking at something very close up that has a big ripple.” Bywater’s sensibility leans toward the abstract and ambiguous. “I’ve always been drawn to more existential pieces—I’ve always preferred ‘Peter Grimes‘ to ‘Albert Herring,'” she says. Bywater cites Britten’s church parable “Curlew River” as another influence, a piece whose hieratic atmosphere places it between theater and liturgy. 

Bywater’s staging is significant in the context of ENO’s recent history. A first irony is that it represents the reimagining of opera in a way that speaks directly to what Arts Council England seem to want, as they persist with their plan to revamp ENO by defunding and relocating it. “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” takes an accessible and popular work and uses operatic stagecraft to show precisely what the latter adds to sung music; at 55 minutes the performance is approachable and digestible. The scale of the production, with one soloist and a handful of actors, also makes it affordable and scalable (or, in the managerial rhetoric of ACE: “agile”).

The staging also underlines a part of ENO’s artistic identity that differentiates it from the Royal Opera House in a way that has nothing to do with singing in English (Bywater leaves the original Polish untouched), using UK-based talent, or the price point for the audience. This staging of a concert work isn’t ENO’s first. Previous artistic director Daniel Kramer brought in photographer and video artist Wolfgang Tillmans for his 2018 staging of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.” Deborah Warner created a “Messiah” for the Coliseum in 2009. Anish Kapoor designed 2016’s “Tristan and Isolde,” with a second act focused on a glittering, frozen geodesic sphere, and the same year, William Kentridge’s juddering drawings in “Lulu” offered uneasy commentary on Berg’s opera. Phelim McDermott’s collaborations with Improbable in Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha” and “Akhnaten” (a sell-out revival this season) again veer more towards installation than opera in their use of juggling and puppetry to create theatrical spectacle. Daniel Lismore’s 2019 staging of “The Mask of Orpheus” literally dazzled with tens of thousands of Swarovski crystals. Slow-burn, design-led stagings have made ENO creatively distinct. There has been a strong feeling for visual adventure in works that do mood more than action.   

Next season, ENO will stage Marina Abramovic’s “The 7 Deaths of Maria Callas,” a work that unpacks opera’s history by drawing on the resources of performance art: video projection, duration, ritual. These stagings speak of ENO’s attempts to put opera in dialogue with things outside its sometimes rather insular sphere. This year saw spoken-word artist Kieron Rennie in a creative residency with the company; ENO Breathe made opera part of public health policy; VAN’s Hugh Morris followed the company to Liverpool for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest

Photo © Clive Barda

We often talk about how to open opera up, asking who creates work for the stage, who appears on it, and how to renovate or rehabilitate repertory works. Why not innovate in terms of genre too? Staging concert pieces—especially ones whose narratives are loose and abstract—is a great pretext for bringing the opera house into dialogue with different art forms, which is a way of bringing in new and different audiences. (“Loads of people go to art galleries who don’t necessarily risk going to the theater,” Bywater tells me.) 

One of the virtues of putting concert works on the opera stage is to be found in their indeterminate openness: they can become a frame for telling all kinds of stories, scarcely imaginable to their creators, including ones untold in traditional libretti. Pieces that have grown complacently familiar in concert halls can be reimagined by directors. In turn, the opera stage is revitalized by a transfusion of new dramatic and musical blood. ¶

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