Sun. Dec 9th, 2018

The Vienna Opera opens a journey into the darkness of xenophobic populism

The Vienna Opera opens a journey into the darkness of xenophobic populism



A trip to the heart of the darkness of a Europe that sails towards xenophobia, towards isolation and nationalism. A trip in the form of an opera that drinks from sources such as the movie Apocalypse Now and that connects the fascism of the past with the populism of the present.

That's "Die Weiden" (The Willows, in German), a work created on behalf of the Vienna State Opera and which opens today.

"We want to ask questions that concern us about the repetition of history, about fatal events in the 20th century, we look at the present as a historical substance," explains Austrian composer Johannes Maria Staud, author of the music.

Staud himself has defined the work as a journey towards "the heart of darkness", (in reference to the novel of that name by Joseph Conrad), in a current Central Europe full of angry citizens, which is isolated and in which the middle class is brutalized.

Staud and the German poet and essayist Durs Grünbein, author of the libretto, have created a piece that does not pretend to be a "work of political didactics", but does "pose questions, be uncomfortable and criticize", as the composer says.

"Die Weiden" begins with Lea, (the mezzosoprano Rachel Frenkel), a young American philosopher who prepares a canoe trip for "the country on the river", from where her parents were expelled by the "men-carp", which their ugly appearance and their enormous mouths symbolize the fear and suffocation that extends that nationalism.

Lea and her beloved Peter (Tomasz Konieczny) begin a journey through his country.

On the way they meet a couple of friends of Peter, who joins them, and Krachmeyer, a renowned composer who complains that the country sinks into "a tide of foreign voices and rhythms."

In that descent down the Dorma River, a transcript of the Danube, the protagonists are immersed in a surreal and misty world, populated by forest rangers who hunt refugees so that "the forest does not get sick", demagogues who warn of "camouflaged terrorists and parasites" of refugees "and of reborn" men-carp ".

"The right has a new enemy stereotype: Yesterday it was the Jew, who is no longer there because it was destroyed, and now they are the new foreigners," says Grünbein.

Grünbein and Staud started working on this piece in 2015, when the arrival of refugees in Europe reached its peak.

Staud compares the creative process with Apocalypse Now Redux, the extended version of Francis Ford Coppola's film (based on "The Heart of Darkness"), in which scenes that were not in the original film were added.

Likewise, the authors of "Die Weiden" were including some chapters and withdrawing others, with a narrative concept similar to cinema.

Although he flees from naturalism and even resorts to surrealism, in the work there are clear historical references to the Nazi past.

One of the most obvious concerns the Engerau massacre, near Bratislava, where, in the last days of World War II, hundreds of Jews were shot or thrown into the Danube by the Nazis.

"Never stops the infamy, the harassment, the hatred", sings the choir of victims who meets a Lea who denounces that what some call "myth" is, in truth, their "black history".

"In a country like ours (Austria), with our history, the Holocaust, the Third Reich, there is now a party in the Government that has never distanced itself from that history," denounces Staud, speaking of the ultranationalist FPÖ, who has One year he governs in coalition with the Austrian People's Party.

With that background of violence and hatred, Lea and Peter separate when she rejects her family of "men-carp" and he reproaches her for this "people".

A scene that serves Staud to defend the individual responsibility of each citizen.

"It's a matter of personal decision, I can decide not to have a feeling of hatred towards foreigners, we're not animals, we can choose a different way of life, it's difficult, it's laborious, it's conflictive, but it's possible," he says.

Regarding the possible reception of the public, Staud assumes that there may be rejection, both for the political issue and the use of electronic music and alteration of the voices, resources that can hit an audience with the reputation of conservative that has the the Vienna Opera.

"I'm not going to take it personally, what I hope is that people come with their ears open," he says.

Antonio Sánchez Solís

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