“When most people think of musical prodigies they think of the other Wolfgang,” says Keith Cerny, former General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera, who has been on a mission to help resurrect Korngold’s work. “But Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a prodigy whose talent in some ways eclipsed Mozart’s.”
“Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was following established musical forms,” Cerny says. “As a child of 12, Korngold was inventing a musical form the world had never heard and rather than growing into his genius, his genius grew. Korngold composed The Ring of Polykrates when he was 16.”
Temple Emanu-El Cantor Vicky Glikin, who will host a symposium on and performance of Korngold’s work in the Stern Chapel on Sunday, January 14th, shares Cerny’s passion to redeem the Korngold legacy. “Before he reached his Bar Mitzvah, Erich Wolfgang had the attention of the musical elite. The entire community was fixated on his compositions. Unfortunately, he was coming of age as the Nazis were coming to power.”
Glikin hopes the Dallas Jewish community will be eager to attend this event, enjoy a chamber performance of Korngold’s Piano Trio, Op. 1, and learn more about the best composer of whom they’ve likely never heard.
Scholars rhapsodize about what they consider Korngold’s “prodigious and musical brilliance” and stories abound of how the most famous musicians and singers were “spellbound by Korngold” and wanted to perform his work.
“His mastery of Viennese waltz was extraordinary, something unheard of since Strauss. His command of the waltz form in all its nuance from cheery to sinister, his variety in speed and texture…” Cerny’s voice trails off and his gaze wanders for a moment, as if he is listening to the waltz he is trying to describe.
Fortunately for those who assemble in the acoustically exquisite Stern Chapel later this month, a chamber orchestra will perform the music the world almost lost. And you can participate in music history in February when The Dallas Opera will present four performances of The Ring of Polykrates.
To bring Korngold’s musical confection alive, The Dallas Opera tapped celebrated director Peter Kazaras, who is Director of Opera Studies at UCLA. Kazaras is an intellectual with way more than music on the brain. He speaks of opera with references to history, literature, psychology, cinema, and zeitgeist. A Harvard grad with a JD from NYU Law School, Kazaras has led an extraordinary career as an operatic tenor. He has the musical gift, the brains, and he has the yiddishe neshama to channel Korngold. Perhaps one of his greatest gifts to the opera world is that Kazaras makes this form of entertainment accessible to people who may not suspect they will enjoy opera.
Describing the opera’s protagonist, Wilhelm Arndt, Kazaras paints a detailed verbal portrait of “an accomplished young artist, newly married, newly possessed of a fortune, a young man on his way up and perhaps ripe for tragedy. But Korngold was a teenager when he wrote this opera so it is a fun, slightly madcap comedy, which is unusual in opera.”
It’s clear Kazaras has thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to stage this landmark production of Polykrates, the third-ever American production in 100 years.
“We all really get to use our imaginations. These are ACTORS not just singers – the sound is gorgeous – and the acting is magnificent. This is a gorgeous, beautiful, beautiful piece. It’s fun for us and will be great fun for the audience.”
What’s fascinating about Peter Kazaras (what isn’t fascinating about Peter Kazaras?) is how visually he approaches opera.
Kazaras and Donald Eastman, the scenic designer, spent months researching period decor and then collaborated with Drew Field, The Dallas Opera’s technical director and head of artistic operations, in order to perfect every detail of the set, including the wallpaper.
The Dallas Opera’s costume and prop designer, Tommy Bourgeois, immersed himself in Kazaras’ notes and spent months researching period fashion, poring over Edwardian pattern books for inspiration. Bourgeois, who is at the height of his game, revels in the challenge of creating costumes that facilitate the audience’s connection to an opera by artfully communicating character, and he faces challenges unfamiliar to his colleagues who only design for the theatre.
“Gentlemen of this era wore very stiff shirt collars,” he says, displaying samples he has created for the male leads. “But a tenor needs to breathe and project differently than an actor so these costumes have to be adapted for function without sacrificing form.”
Drew Field, who has seen and heard everything in the opera world, is intrigued by the project and the tech crew is completely on board.
“Honestly, I hadn’t heard of Korngold before Keith Cerny introduced Die tote Stadt to our 2013-14 season,” Field admits. “La Boheme, La Traviata, and The Marriage of Figaro are popular standards for a reason. These are great productions people can’t see too many times. But Korngold’s works belong in that category. It’s fun to put something new together for Polykrates and I’d like to believe we are helping to establish a creative template for this piece that other companies will enjoy performing and audiences will enjoy seeing for generations to come.”
In his workshop, surrounded by thousands of costumes and props from every opera anyone has ever heard of, Tommy Bourgeois’ eyes sparkle as he describes his feelings about designing for an opera he is helping to rescue from the dustbin of popular memory.
“It’s an honor.”