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HK Gruber’s new opera, based on the play by Horváth, is premiered at the Bregenz Festival on 23 July with further performances at the Theater an der Wien next March.

How did you discover Horváth’s play?

The play is very well known in the German-speaking world as a classic from the interwar period, and is perhaps even more highly regarded in Austria than Brecht. Michael Sturminger, who’d directed my last stagework Der Herr Nordwind, predicted after the premiere in 2005 that “your next opera will be Tales from the Vienna Woods”. My instant reaction was that this was impossible because I thought it was such a perfect theatre piece that it didn’t need music. But he drew up a list of famous plays that are also successful as operas, such as Berg’s, where music can add another dimension, supporting meaning and providing subtext, and my view began to change. When David Pountney, then director of the Bregenz Festival, invited me to write a buffo opera, he was initially surprised when I suggested the Horváth play because he knew of its dark political side. But he came back and said “you were right – Vienna Woods is the perfect Gruber piece.”

What made it such an ideal play for you?

The more I explored the play with Michael Sturminger the more I had to agree that Horváth’s working methods and interests were similar to mine. We have both tried to subvert the clichés and conventions that surround us and the masks that people wear, attempting to reveal the true face that is hidden, while mixing humour with serious observation. In works like Charivari and Manhattan Broadcasts I’d already toyed with the Johann Strauss-like view of Vienna and with so-called light music, and it was a revelation to discover that Horváth had once imagined Kurt Weill writing the incidental music for Vienna Woods, giving me courage that a Threepenny Opera approach was the right path.

How did you turn the play into an opera?

Michael Sturminger crafted a libretto, cutting the text and adding nothing, using only Horváth’s own lines and stage directions. This was crucial because the drama is driven by the specific language the characters use – often mouthing clichéd phrases and views – and we had a responsibility to respect the playwright’s skill. We repeatedly spoke through the text, giving us a plan for tempi and structure. As well as watching the play on stage, there have been a couple of movie versions of Vienna Woods and I particularly admired the Maximilian Schell film, which provided us with ideas about how the drama and the milieu could mesh for the operatic stage.

The controversial depiction of bourgeois characters sleepwalking towards a Fascist abyss shocked the public and the authorities at its 1931 premiere. How relevant is the story for modern audiences?

Horváth’s personal background is important here. He grew up in Croatia on the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, moving to Budapest and Vienna, so had a particularly clear view of society when the First World War swept the Habsburg illusion away. The characters in Vienna Woods reflect the turmoil and depression of the 1920s, with unemployment, poverty and drifters returning, often injured, from the battlefields. The new shrunken Austria had an identity crisis and the void in social structures was filled with a drift towards Fascism. However, these tensions between democracy and repression could play themselves out anywhere at any time, even in our own age when you look at the latest news bulletin.

The play has a curious mixture of characters abstracted as social stereotypes, and very naturalistic narrative. How do you reconcile this?

There are definitely two sides to the drama but they generate a creative tension. One side is abstract, ritualistic and almost oratorio-like, with the language of the characters defining the action to the point where the Austrian setting is almost unnecessary. Erich Kästner described it as a “Viennese folk play against the Viennese folk play”. The other side is naturalistic because Horváth knew the drama had to exist and find a life in the theatre. It is a very simple story. Marianne’s father wants her to marry the local butcher who has a future because ‘man will always have to eat’. Marianne prefers to flout convention and find true love with a feckless dandy. This is just a dream and reality inevitably returns, with a happy ending which is anything but, brought about by the cruel death of her son.

With the protagonists acting almost like dumb animals, should this draw parallels with your operatic pigtale Gloria, also being staged in Bregenz?

The fact that both works have a butcher and a Fascist threat is a macabre co-incidence. Gloria and Marianne are very different characters: Gloria, the beautiful lady pig, is blind to the fact that her love for the butcher will end in sausages, whereas I see Marianne as intelligent and the only honest human being in Vienna Woods. She attempts to escape the unthinking world around her but is eventually cowed to return to the butcher like a hunted animal. The other protagonists are summed up by Horváth at the start of the play: “Nothing gives the feeling of infinity as much as stupidity.” 

How did you reflect the importance of music in the play, such as the waltzes and the cabaret scene?

Horváth was quite specific about the use of Johann Strauss’s Tales from the Vienna Woods waltz. It conjures up a certain Viennese cosiness which is used ironically. Small fragments of it appear in the opera within an orchestral interlude and it is heard in full on an out-of-tune piano played by a schoolgirl in a neighbour’s house, complete with hesitations, mistakes and cluster thumps of anger. Marianne sings an invented folksong and characters strum the open strings of a guitar and a zither. The cabaret scene at the tawdry Maxim nightclub, where Marianne dances naked to earn money, draws instruments from the pit onstage, with the soundworld imitating old shellac recordings of the Weimar period dancebands.

How did you create a distinctive vocal landscape for the opera?

The vocal lines all grew from Horváth’s language. Each character sings the text in personalised natural rhythms rather than conforming to an operatic type. Similarly, there is no web of leitmotive in a Wagnerian sense. However some passages of music are returned to later in the opera when memory is evoked. When the libretto was assembled we attempted to create closed forms, such as ABA, with the return to the A material reprising the melodic contours but with different rhythms because of the different text. Marianne sings something closer to a conventional aria when she prays to God to foretell her future, and the final duet employs the Puccinian mannerisms you might expect but Marianne and the butcher’s voices are dislocated showing the distance between them.

Do you view the work as a distinctively Austrian fable, or a universal warning?

The work inevitably has special meanings for the Viennese with its settings in the 8th district, in the Vienna Woods, on the banks of the Blue Danube, in the Wachau. But this isn’t important to the heart of the opera. The quiet street has a toy shop, a butcher’s and a tobacconist and this could be in any city such as Paris, Madrid or London. The drama played out, depicting the stupidity of convention through an arranged marriage ‘in everyone’s interests’, must be happening somewhere in the world right now.

Interview by David Allenby

Read more about Gruber at the Bregenz Festival
> Read reviews from Bregenz

HK Gruber
Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald (2011-14)
(Tales from the Vienna Woods)
Opera in three acts
Libretto by Michael Sturminger
based on the play by Ödön von Horváth

Bregenz Festival
23 July 2014 (world premiere)
27 July / 3 August
Conducted by HK Gruber
Directed by Michael Sturminger
Angelika Kirchschlager/Anja Silja/Daniel Schmutzhard/ Jörg Schneider/Albert Pesendorfer
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Ensemble Nova

Theater an der Wien
14/16/18/21/23 March 2015

>  Further information on Work: Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald

Photo: Lucerne Festival

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