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At certain turning points, events of the past must be understood before planning the future. As all operaphiles know, this year marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of the landmark opera house on Vienna’s Ringstrasse. The Wiener Staatsoper, or Vienna State Opera, was inaugurated in May 1969 with a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Next year will be a time of transition for the Vienna State Opera, as Dominique Meyer, the current general director, is scheduled to retire. In 2016, the company announced that his successor would be Belgrade- born Bogdan Roščić, former managing director of the Decca Music Group in London and head of Sony Music Classical.

In 2017, the Staatsoper also announced the appointment of the Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan as its next music director, effective with the 2020-2021 season. Maestro Jordan is currently music director of the Paris Opera and chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony.

Amid this flurry of change and evolution, how the Vienna State Opera sees itself has, perhaps inevitably, developed as well. At the behest of the history-conscious Meyer, in 2017 projects were launched to reconstruct the history of opera in Vienna. He assembled a group of distinguished historians and musicologists for a public symposium held in September 2018 at the Staatsoper.

Also last year, to mark the 80th anniversary of the annexation of Austria by Germany, an exhibition was presented in the Gustav Mahler Hall of the State Opera, curated by the dramaturgs Andreas Láng and Oliver Láng.

Among the publications ensuing from these events is this lavishly illustrated effort. Before 1995, Wiener Staatsoper-sponsored publications abstained from any detailed discussion of the war years or incisive critique of the past in general.

Now the trend has changed, and we learn that in 19th- century Austria, opera was merely a plaything for the aristocracy rather than a vehicle for political messages. Unlike the creative ferment of the art form in Italy and Germany, where Verdi and Wagner were innovating, Vienna experienced what the musicologist Christian Glanz calls a ‘strange creative lull’. Mozart, Gluck and Italian composers were performed, but nothing more daring.

This would later change under such artistically ambitious directors as Gustav Mahler, who ran the Staatsoper for a decade, from 1897 to 1907. Then, with the German occupation of Austria in 1938, political messages would become all too prevalent. In Austria, Nazi edicts were readily accepted by ‘largely passive, flexible administrative officials and ideologically infiltrated artists,’ as the historian Tamara Ehs notes: ‘The State Opera did not serve art but the state… Resistance was rare.’

This meant racial laws were promptly enforced, leading to the firing and forced deportations of staff ranging from humble launderers, stagehands, choristers and dancers, right up to the world-famous conductor Bruno Walter. Several of the former, as detailed in the second volume of this history, would be murdered in concentration camps. Others, including such formerly valued stars as the tenor Richard Tauber, conductor Josef Krips and concertmaster Arnold Rosé, were likewise disposed of. Leo Wurmser, the Staatsoper repetiteur, survived only because he had worked at Covent Garden in the early 1930s, so he was granted a UK work permit and managed to escape Austria in 1938. To replace these employees, the Staatsoper was flooded with applications from opera world professionals in Nazi Germany.

Recovering from the debacle after the Axis defeat was challenging, as the historian Rathkolb observes. Part of this renovation, admits Rathkolb, was due to postwar Austrians blaming Germany for all crimes of the Nazi era. While children were still starving across Europe, a committee was launched and sent to America to gather funds to rebuild the Vienna Opera House. Part of the fundraising message was that Austria was a cultural nation of ‘harmless, cozy, singing, and peaceful people’. The harmless Staatsoper company slowly began to tour internationally.

Soon, the Vienna State Opera became an ‘important, global, positive brand’. Yet only around two decades ago was the Staatsoper finally ready to face the true record of its deeds during World War II. These volumes, published in the spirit of celebration, do not shirk the horror of the past, while turning our focus to the future and the pressing challenges of how to meet high artistic standards at a time of shrinking subsidies.

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica


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