Music, University of Birmingham
My doctoral thesis fundamentally revises the emergence of modern opera in the Weimar Republic (1919-1933). Drawing on an eclectic range of primary sources from this period, it pays new attention to how operas based on expressionist texts were seen as heralding the future of the genre. This point of entry goes directly against the standard trajectory of Weimar opera: that, by the early 1920s, expressionism was in crisis and swiftly fell out of fashion in favour of the supposedly more modern Zeitoper. Translated roughly as ‘opera of the times’, Zeitoper has long been emphasised as an answer to Germany’s Opernkrise (opera crisis) – both an aesthetic and economic crisis – with its archetype being Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf (1927). In contrast to the violent, hysterical and subjective topics of expressionist drama, Zeitoper offered a seemingly more objective portrayal of the spirit of the times, embracing everyday settings, popular music such as jazz, technology and mass media. As critics from the time obsessed over the notion of Zeitoper, so too have later scholars in their work on Weimar opera, with Jonny spielt auf oversaturating these accounts. Consequently, earlier achievements in modern opera, particularly those with an affinity to expressionism, have been left untold, resulting in a skewed, ahistorical account of interwar operatic trends in Germany.
In my thesis, I turn the standard narrative on its head by demonstrating how pre-Jonny expressionist operas were seen to be modern and as hope for the future of German opera on their own terms. My case studies in turn reveal new insights into the under-researched works and early careers of composers Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill and Ernst Krenek. Collectively, they also highlight the intersection of opera and expressionism on a scope beyond the oft-cited Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung (1909) and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1925). Furthermore, I use these case studies as starting points for constructing a more holistic overview of Weimar Germany’s modern opera culture. I see this opera culture as constituted by the works themselves, their dissemination in turn fuelled by local, national and transnational networks of people and institutions, with surrounding discourses facilitating discussions of these works. My thesis will accordingly offer a fresh perspective on Weimar opera and stand as a key text for future studies.
Boucher, Daniel. 'Recuperating expressionism: Hindemith's operatic triptych'. The Musical Quarterly, volume 106 (forthcoming, 2023).