Kafka on the score

Salvatore Sciarrino's Kafka--based opera suggests that the past is ever-present.

  • ON YOUR KNEES Baritone Ekkehard Abele gets lost in the bureaucracy of La porta della legge

  • Sciarrino

ON YOUR KNEES Baritone Ekkehard Abele gets lost in the bureaucracy of La porta della legge

Franz Kafka’s works have a staying power that’s stronger than that of the cockroach (especially one named Gregor Samsa). Unsurprisingly, his bloodless stories of totalitarianism and despotism have swiftly and seamlessly worked their way into various other forms of media, including opera: Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony has its U.K. premiere later this year and Jeff Myers composed a piece based on A Hunger Artist. Most popular, however, is The Trial. Chief among its proponents are Danish composer Poul Ruders, whose Kafka’s Trial also incorporated biographical elements from Kafka’s life, and American composer Gunther Schuller, whose The Visitation uses the story to expose what he called “the Kafkaesque in the Negro problem.”

Taking similar inspiration is Salvatore Sciarrino, whose La porta della legge is based on one of Kafka’s earlier short stories that the author later incorporated into The Trial. Its first run in the U.S., performed by Germany’s Wuppertal Opera as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, opens on Tuesday 20. The Sicilian-born Sciarrino, who now resides in Umbria, has witnessed his own share of Kafkaesque dealings in the Italian government, most recently the scandalous and controversial politics of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. “Kafka’s story tackles an ever-present problem in a society dominated by bureaucracy and with very little humanity, a dysfunctional and often perverted society,” the composer writes in a translated e-mail. “It’s a grand, tragic theme that touches most of us—perhaps all of us. A theme I find all over the world, most notably and sadly the situation in Italy.”

Premiered in 2009, La porta della legge takes the central story of The Trial—a man accused of an unknown crime waits in vain at the titular gate of the law to clear his name and, naturally, dies before he can do so—and weaves it into three renditions, each with its own vocal setting: In the first telling, the man is a baritone and in the second, a countertenor; in the third, both singers perform together. The cyclical nature of the piece, coupled with haunting, sparse music more telling in its silences than in the notes actually heard, speaks to the idea that not much has changed since Kafka’s time. The careful repetitions are maddening in their own right, particularly since the audience knows how the story ends before the first note is sung.

“As in every great tragedy, the fate is sealed,” Sciarrino explains of the three versions (and vocal settings) of his hero. “But each individual reacts differently. Together, they create a third voice, made up of the two voices, and give life not only to a different timbre but to a different world that also flows in the orchestra. And when that world of sound opens, the opera stops.”

For a composer not widely known in the United States, Sciarrino has become a go-to artist for the Lincoln Center Festival; La porta is his third opera to be produced by the organization. Perhaps more than a relevant subject and potent story, the chance to hear a Sciarrino work at all is what gives La porta its buzz. Yet the intimacy and immediacy of the composer’s style make it a far-from-flashy event—a smoldering burn rather than the bang of the festival’s other classical event, a two-day retrospective of Edgard Varse.

“The music and the singers are whispering a story to you in your ear,” Lincoln Center Festival artistic director Nigel Redden says of Sciarrino’s work. “What I find fascinating is that he uses a different vocabulary, a different musical idiom than most contemporary composers. He’s using a range of sounds and suggestions, and also a kind of connection to a music of the past that seems unbroken and organic.” The effects of Italian madrigal are certainly present in Sciarrino’s previous works with the festival, Luci Mie Traditrici and Macbeth, much in the same way Stravinsky’s compositions hearkened back to Bach.

Yet for all the connective tissue, Sciarrino rejects the notion of being drawn to history—musically or otherwise. “I don’t find myself attracted to the past....I search for universal themes born in the tradition of Greek tragedy,” he says. “When we watch and listen to an opera, we identify with the protagonist: I look for subjects that we can see ourselves in and that have relevance today.”

La porta della legge plays Tue 20-Thu 22 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College.

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