Life is a cabaret

Franz Schreker's distant sound gets a little closer.

  • JAZZ HANDS Strassberger, right, and Maamar rehearse a scene from Der Ferne Klang.

  • A costume sketch for Der ferne Klang

JAZZ HANDS Strassberger, right, and Maamar rehearse a scene from Der Ferne Klang.

In a mercifully air-conditioned rehearsal space at Bard College, tenor Mathias Schulz is dying. Yet as his life flashes before his eyes—accompanied by ghostly dancers and arpeggiated chords—the last words being called into question by director Thaddeus Strassberger and conductor Leon Botstein are not Schulz’s, but those of German soprano Yamina Maamar...or rather, the words of the character she portrays in Franz Schreker’s opera Der ferne Klang (“the distant sound”). In the libretto, she’s due to speak, even scream, “Fritz! Was ist dir?” But Strassberger, who is directing the opera for Bard’s SummerScape series, is playing with the text, having her whisper, “Fritz, ah, Fritz,” before a final booming chord.

Strassberger explains his interpretation to Botstein, arguing that the original line is “a vestige of late verismo that is perhaps inappropriate to the situation we’ve created, something that’s light and complex.” Botstein is unconvinced. “By breaking the bubble of naturalism, you complicate the story,” he counters. The conversation switches into German as Botstein, Strassberger, Maamar and Schulz hash and rehash the end of Schreker’s rare, decadent 1909 opera. For a while, even the excessive central air can’t stop the escalating heat. And then comes the union-enforced break.

“I love having that conversation with Leon,” Strassberger says later over a quick lunch in nearby Tivoli. “I always say that opera’s just lines and dots and words scattered about, and we choose to believe that they’re meaningfully arranged; we choose to interpret them in certain ways.”

The final interpretation will be revealed when Der ferne Klang opens on Friday 30. Regardless, the work is in good hands. Schulz and Maamar have previously performed the respective roles of Fritz—a conflicted composer in search of the titular distant, unattainable sound—and Grete, the woman he loves but frequently sidelines for the sake of his art. Maamar even sang Grete in concert with Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall in 2007.

Strassberger himself is returning to SummerScape after last year’s successful mounting of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (a production for which this author operated supertitles). The Oklahoma native, who now divides his time between the United States and Europe, is comfortable helming productions that dig to the heart of a work without forsaking the story or music.

Like Huguenots, Klang is an object lesson in grandiosity, which helps to explain why it is seldom encountered: This will be its first full U.S. production. “Just the resources required to put this together, you can’t cheat them,” Strassberger explains. “It’s actually a shame: Talking about HD and how to make opera more accessible and exciting, I think one way to do it would be to actually do the operas as they’re written.” No expense is spared in Strassberger’s Klang, orchestral or otherwise. Mirrors abound onstage; silent clips from Fritz Lang films play for effect. Costume sketches and scenic renderings show a Weimar-tinged world from early in the past century, when mass communications and film were just catching on, women were becoming more liberated and less clothed, and the world would become more operatic than a five-hour Verdi fest, due to two global wars. It’s a world Schreker didn’t entirely live to see (he died in 1934), but one that he alluded to in his music, which, like his characters, is perpetually uneasy and unsettling. Alban Berg, who created the piano score for Klang and who will be the subject of this year’s Bard Music Festival, would later capitalize on this same style in Lulu and Wozzeck.

Yet for all its Meyerbeerian grandeur, Klang doesn’t go over the top. “Fritz’s realization that his quest is useless is kind of an idea that rings more true and less operatic, not like, 'Well, in the end it was all worth it,’ ” Strassberger says as we head back to the Fisher Center for afternoon rehearsal. “There’s no sense of resolution that’s positive,” he explains. “But I think that the resolution for the end...[is] acceptance of the fact that there’s nothing more. At least for me and my own personal lack of hope, finding a lack of hope [and] accepting the fact makes everything okay.”

Der ferne Klang is at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts Fri 30, Sun 1, Wed 4 and Aug 6.