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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Opera after Stunde Null

  • Author(s): Pollock, Emily Richmond
  • Advisor(s): Smart, Mary Ann
  • et al.

This dissertation discusses the musical, dramatic, and political implications of postwar German opera through the examination of four case studies: Boris Blacher's Abstrakte Oper Nr. 1 (1953), Hans Werner Henze's König Hirsch (1956), Carl Orff's Oedipus der Tyrann (1959), and Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten (1965). Both the composers' musical decisions and the finished works' critical and musicological reception demonstrate just how urgently the genre of opera was thought to be in crisis. Enabled by the myth of the "Stunde Null" or Zero Hour, many avant-garde composers shunned opera as artistically bankrupt and conservative, preferring instead genres that were less closely tied to the musical past.

Opera's coherence as a genre depended upon the maintenance and renewal of dramatic and musical conventions from eras both immediate and distant - a dependence that became politicized as the boundaries of "new music" were policed. Composers of new operas in this era were forced to attempt creative and productive solutions to the problem of how to write an opera in a milieu skeptical of opera's potential for innovation. The reception of these operas reflects these concerns, as critics and musicologists alike sought to make sense of the pieces within the context defined aesthetically by operatic tradition and politically by the Stunde Null.

If opera was a problem in general for post-war composers in Germany, each of the four operas in this dissertation represents one set of solutions. By referring to a varied dramatic and musical heritage, these composers looked for artistic touchstones that would allow them to position themselves in meaningful artistic lineages, whether Italian bel canto, Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, Greek tragedy, or abstract theater.

In Boris Blacher's Abstrakte Oper Nr. 1, the authors' efforts to foil operaticism with nonsense opened the door for audiences to project their deepest fears onto the piece. The songs and arias in Henze's König Hirsch, which Henze revised and crafted to be as lyrical and transparent as possible, made the opera a target of harsh criticism because it was too "conventional." By contrast, Orff's Oedipus der Tyrann was met with both praise and confusion, for despite its striking effects, the piece's extreme asceticism proved incompatible with the expectations of an opera audience. Meanwhile, the ambition and message of Zimmermann's Die Soldaten earned it accolades, but the smaller, more intimate opera that lurks behind the noisy surface contradicts the received idea that Zimmermann conquered the tradition of operatic expressiveness.

The relationship of these operas' musico-dramatic orientations to tradition is therefore indicative of their positions relative to the ideology of the post-war blank slate. Inasmuch as the aesthetics prized after Stunde Null were largely defined by a negation of tradition through the privileging of the radically new, the supposed conservatism of opera led many to declare it dead. But by approaching tradition more constructively, we can better understand the position of opera during this fraught era.

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