• Avner Dorman
  • Wahnfried (2016)

  • G Schirmer Inc (World)
  • 2.2.2.24.3.3.1timp.3percstr
  • SATB
  • 4S, Mz, A,Ct, 2T, Bar, 2B, 2 female voices
  • 2 hr 17 min
  • Avner Dorman
  • Lutz Hübner and Sarah Nemitz
  • English, German

Programme Note

Cast:
Principal Rôles
   HOUSTON CHAMBERLAIN: Tenor (character tenor)
   COSIMA WAGNER: Alto (dramatic mezzo-soprano/alto)
   ANNA CHAMBERLAIN: Lyric dramatic soprano (youthful dramatic soprano)
Secondary Rôles
   SIEGFRIED (FIDI): Countertenor
   WINIFRED: Lyric coloratura soprano
   EVA CHAMBERLAIN: Lyric soprano
   WAGNER-DEMON: Lyric baritone
   THE MASTER DISCIPLE (HITLER): Lyric tenor
   HERMANN LEVI: Dramatic bass (dramatic bass-baritone)
   THE KAISER: Low alto
   BAKUNIN: Bass (lyrical serious bass)
   ISOLDE: Soprano/mezzo-soprano
   THE DAUGHTERS (BLANDINE, DANIELA): female voices
Chorus SATB
   SERVANTS
   PASSERS-BY
   ACTORS
   FESTIVE COMPANY
   THE PROCESSION FROM HELL


Composer note:
While I am a native of Israel, I have long been connected with the culture and people of Germany. My grandparents came to Israel from Germany, and the household in which I grew up was permeated with German culture, from music to literature. As I developed as a musician, I was particularly influenced by the music of the great German composers, an influence that continues to this day. I struggled to come to terms with the understanding, therefore, that this society — that for which I held such a great affinity and connection — was the same society that gave birth to Nazism, and attempted to rid the world of all Jews. This tension nagged at me from an early age: how could the culture that brought about and championed the work of Bach and Beethoven, Goethe and Nietzsche, be the same one that brought to life the ideology that resulted in the Holocaust? As I started working with the librettists, and learning more about the story of Wahnfried, it became increasingly personal, and I saw the process as an opportunity to learn more about origins of Nazism. Delving deeper into the life of Houston Stewart Chamberlain and his family, I felt compelled to write this opera in order to explore this important part of history and also to say something about it. To preserve it through music, not only for myself but also for others, so that the story is not forgotten.

As the main character of the opera, Houston Chamberlain is, in many ways, a contradiction himself. He begins as a failed scientist and a foreigner and is scorned by the public. The libretto allows us a window into his psychology; weak and even pathetic at times, Houston earns our pity, despite his harsh and unfeeling manner. The unfeeling becomes the inhumane as he develops his theories — and the crowds follow his lead. The opera grotesquely celebrates his life, depicting the huge following he created at the time while clearly focusing on his vile and racist thoughts and rhetoric. Nevertheless, Houston's commitment to these ideas does not go unquestioned, as the demons of Levi and of Wagner himself haunt and torment him. On some level, we believe that perhaps Houston knows that what he is doing is wrong. Houston's hunger for power and influence ultimately overtake any sense of guilt or remorse, and he leads himself to his own downfall.

The music of the opera creates a fantastical, at times, absurd depiction of Houston and of the Wagner household. Unlike the works of Wagner, in which the long-form, uninterrupted Gesamkunstwerk allows and encourages the audience to be swept away into another reality, I wrote each scene in Wahnfried with a clear ending. The audience has a brief moment to break from the grotesque action of the stage and consider how it might relate to the world more broadly. In my experience, the only way for me to deal with the gravity of the Holocaust has been through the use of humor — and the libretto of Wahnfried contains that same dark humor. The music allows the audience to laugh at the events onstage, as the portrayals foray into the ridiculous. Still, much of the music contains marches or march elements, providing a nervous, militaristic undertone despite the wild and unbelievable events occurring on stage. Ultimately, the real-life events that these scenes foreshadow are dark and deeply serious.

Having worked with this story and with these characters for several years, it is quite clear to me that the story of Wahnfried is not simply the story of the birth of Nazism. The spread of hatred, intolerance, and fear that we see in Wahnfried and the ideas that Houston Chamberlain wrote over a hundred years ago are still the same elements of the dark and hateful plague we see all around the world today. I see this opera as a cautionary tale that illustrates the power and contagion of hate, no matter the century or the circumstances. I hope that we can learn from the events of Wahnfried and from other darker parts of history and work to build a more peaceful world for the future.

— Avner Dorman

Synopsis:
Houston Stewart Chamberlain is a failed entomologist, a Darwin enthusiast that cannot bring himself to kill a single bug. Unable to come up with his own grand theory, Chamberlain is looking for a different cause, a calling that would give meaning to his life. He finds his calling in the music of Richard Wagner, and in German nationalism.

Wagner's widow, Cosima, enlists Chamberlain to lead the effort to immortalize Wagner's music and link it forever with German nationalism. Chamberlain leaves his first wife and marries Wagner's daughter Eva. He proceeds to write his magnum opus The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, a book that becomes a seminal work in German nationalism. It is the first major work that advocates Aryan supremacy and promotes fighting Jewish influence.

Wahnfried tells the story of how Wagner's music became associated with Nazism and how Cosima Wagner, Houston Chamberlain, and other members of the Wagner circle, became a central part of nationalism in Germany. With an element of black humor coloring the narrative, Wahnfried emphasizes the grotesque nature of the pseudo-science and hatred underlying Chamberlain's theories and the horrific consequences they had. The spirits of Wagner, Hermann Levi, and Mikhail Bakunin haunt Chamberlain through his rise and fall. Chamberlain has a final moment of hope after meeting his great admirer Adolf Hitler in 1924, but Wagner's ghost continues to haunt him proclaiming: 'Chamberlain, you didn't understand anything: not me, not life, you're just a marginal note, a wrong turn. Didn't you know, that all my heroes fail?'

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Wahnfried trailer
Badischen Staatstheater Karlsruhe

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Full score
Vocal score, Act I
Vocal score, Act II

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