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Johannes Maria Staud's Opera "Die Weiden" Premiered at the Vienna State Opera: A Commentary

Fremdschämen: Vienna World Premiere of Johannes Maria Staud’s New Opera “Die Weiden”

All pictures courtesy Wiener Staatsoper, © Michael Pöhn

Johannes Maria Staud is a local darling of the new music scene in Austria and when the Vienna State Opera commissioned a work to premiere on its stage (the first to do so in about a decade), they turned to him for the latest in music theater made in Austria.

Much was made of the content of Die Weiden, which was – so the eager press reported – the stuff political scandals are made of: A controversial, daring, unflinching look at Austria’s current government in which the traditional right-of-center ÖVP coalesces with the notorious populist ‘right-of-right-of-center’ FPÖ. The first time the latter party was part of the government, Austria was on the verge of being boycotted by numerous countries – at this point, some twenty years later,  the world (though not the world of opera composers!) has gotten used to the general momentum towards illiberalism and hardly anyone raised an eyebrow. Perhaps Johannes Maria Staud wanted to change that, god bless his heart. Alas, he failed abjectly:

Firstly, to challenge right-wing attitudes, it makes no sense to write a piece like this, well hidden from all those it purports to criticize in an opera house.  Secondly, in that politically homogenous environment of an opera house and the classical music world (at best going from traditional, mild conservatism to well left of the political spectrum), the topic wasn’t in the least controversial, daring, unflinching. It was preaching to the converted; reinforcing already held attitudes: an act of primitive self-celebration in one’s superiority. Worse: It was so clumsily, patronizingly, naïvely made, it made a thinking person’s toenails curl. Naturally, the German language has a word for the result: Fremdschämen.

Fremdschämen {/ˈfʀɛmtˌʃɛːmən/}  noun, reflexive, informal}: the feeling of shame on someone else's behalf; the feeling of shame for someone else who has done sth. embarrassing.

The German Press Agency (dpa) concluded more or less: ‘If that’s all the left got, the right wing need fear nothing.’ And Vienna’s state owned Wiener Zeitung (the world’s oldest operating newspaper) commented dryly: “Is every voter of a populist party also necessarily an extremist? What motivates people to vote for right-of-traditional-conservative parties? [Librettist] Durs Grünbein can’t be bothered with such questions; within his brown-and-white scheme, there are only humans (noble, left) and carps (the animal that right-wingers symbolically metamorphose into, in this faux-cautionary tale; vile, right) – and he does not waste any time on depth of character.”

Part of the problem is that Staud doesn’t stand for liberalism in true opposition to the new populist right wing: As a sloganeering, focus-minded, and idealism-touting he is merely the educated feel-good illiberal (i.e. left) Ying to the great unwashed’s illiberal (i.e. right) Yang. Now if he had composed great music to this opera, all might have been forgiven. Except there, too, he came well short of any reasonably expected goal, with little to offer between banality and ham-handed burlesque irony, clumsily – hastily? – orchestrated at that. The staging and directly eagerly embraced the flat banality of it all.

Here’s my review for ClassicsToday: World-Premiere of Johannes Maria Staud’s Die Weiden: Opera from the Echo Chamber

More pictures below.

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