Reflecting on his 'old, odd' opera

In "Elegy," "I even used every kind of music that I did not know [yet]." CHRISTOPHER PETER
In "Elegy," "I even used every kind of music that I did not know [yet]." CHRISTOPHER PETER (Composer Hans Werner Henze:)
Posted: March 13, 2012

No major composer since Giuseppe Verdi has written as many operas, and substantial ones, as Hans Werner Henze. The German-born, Italy-based composer, who is 85, has written 21, and is working on a cantata for Pentecost season titled An den Wind: Musikstueck zu Pfingsten.

And, as is the case with Verdi's 28 operas, nobody agrees on which is his masterpiece. Some vote for the orchestrally lush Bassarids. Others say the tumultuous Boulevard Solitude. More votes might go for the 1961 Elegy for Young Lovers, were it heard more often.

Rarely produced in the United States, Elegy opens here on Wednesday at the Perelman Theater in a joint effort from the Curtis Institute of Music, Opera Company of Philadelphia, and the Kimmel Center -- and conducted by George Manahan, who is indeed convinced this one is the masterpiece.

But it's a daunting one. The original libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman gives Elegy a great literary pedigree, but with enough odd twists to make it an odd candidate for any operatic Parnassus. The central character is nastier than any operatic devil: Aging poet Gregor Mittenhofer visits an Alpine resort each year to record the ravings of a madwoman; he then passes off her words as his poetry. When she regains her sanity -- and starts wanting 10 percent -- Mittenhofer allows a pair of young lovers (one of them his mistress) to die in a blizzard, knowing he'd get a good poem out of it.

Musically, it's nearly three hours of never knowing what's coming next. "Some parts sound very neoclassical and almost like Erik Satie. Then you turn the page and it's very Boulez, especially when you hear the orchestration for 15 instruments that are all treated like soloists," says conductor Manahan. "There's never a page in this score when you can coast. He knows how to write for the voices -- but he asks a lot of them."

The composer, who is known to be a warm, gentle person (Manahan worked with him on the 1985 U.S. premiere of The English Cat and said he was lovely), doesn't see his work as difficult.

"Each character has one or two obbligato instruments to help him to underline and clarify the sense of his behavior on stage," Henze said in an e-mail interview.

Such are the discoveries Manahan and his cast are making every day in a work they hope to perform as fluidly as Puccini. Henze won't be here for what he affectionately calls "my old, odd Elegy," but was happy to field questions online.

Question: When I tell people about Elegy for Young Lovers, their jaws drop. They can't believe that such a fearlessly outrageous story is the subject of an opera. Was there any apprehension in taking on a libretto whose main character is so unsympathetic?

Answer: Unsympathetic characters make good opera principals. ... the presence of very sympathetic counter-roles is an aesthetic necessity.

Q: The role was first sung by the great art-song recitalist Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. How did he feel about portraying such a monster?

A: He loved it!

Q: I find lots of wonderful dark humor in the opera when the narcissistic poet verbally abuses anybody who crosses his path. Is the humor intentional?

A: This opera is, as such, constructed as a morality play, and the funny scenes in it have the function to enlighten and to delight the audiences. Apart from this, there are scenes of tragic errors, and others of sincere and innocent love (hence comes the title of the opera).

Q: Many of your operas have a strictly circumscribed musical language. With Elegy, you seemed to be using most every different kind of music you knew.

A: I even used every kind of music that I did not know (yet). As in all my stage works - here, too - I have been trying to employ music to help me depicting the characters.

Q: Music you didn’t know yet? Such as?

A: Anton Bruckner.

Q: To what extent have you observed Mittenhofer vampiric qualities in artists around you? Maybe in yourself? Maybe in Auden?

A: W.H. Auden loved people, helped people, encouraged people, all of that with a deeply Christian thinking in the background. His generosity and his belief in a future without murders, without war, and a general trend to enlarge benevolence, were the major subject matters in his life and in his work. Of course, I did not only know Wystan [AUDEN], but a good deal of artists. All were nice people, though perhaps a bit strange.

Q: Is there any justification for Mittenhofer's ruthlessness?

A: There is none.

Q: Is any art so great that it's worth sacrificing lives?

A: No.

Q: You’ve said that one of your favorite Elegy productions was at the Young Vic in London, directed by Fiona Shaw. What did you like about that?

A: The attention Ms. Shaw had given to each of the characters – there was also much development of detail work in set, costumes and musical placement

Q: In Philadelphia, Elegy is being done in a small, 650-seat hall. How do you feel about that, in comparison to a grand opera house?

A: Elegy was designed for chamber theaters, places like the Schwetzingen Schlosstheater and the Munich Cuvilliés-Theater, the small hall of the Munich State Opera, so the new Philadelphia Perelman Theater seems to have the perfect size.

Q: Your operas are performed widely in Europe, but less so in the United States. Have you wondered about why?

A: In the States, I think, the operatic repertory range is much smaller than in Europe because of its mostly private funding. But all the same, I'm happy and grateful to those people who put on Elegy in the U.S.

Q: We're having a Henze opera for the second season in a row, the last one being Phaedra. Might you come here to see how they're being done?

A: I am old now. Traveling has become difficult, yet I would like to see Philadelphia one day. For the time being, I'm asking you to communicate to my friends and colleagues . . . my very best thanks and good wishes.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at


comments powered by Disqus