Behind the Curtain: A Personal Favorite Takes Center Stage

Drawing of a stage set with a tower on the left side and picture frames along the walls.
Set rendering for The Dead City
Source: Robert Perdziola

By: Greg Carpenter, The Ellie Caulkins General & Artistic Director

The holiday season presents us with many opportunities to reflect upon the year that is ending and the year that is ahead. As I think about 2022, I am reminded of our exciting return to the stage after a year of darkness due to COVID-19. We had great artistic achievements this year with our thrilling production of The Shining in February, our beautifully dramatic production of Carmen in May, and most recently, our grand production of Rigoletto. These productions represent the best of the great classics and new or lesser-known operas.

As we head into 2023, I am so excited to be presenting a brand-new production of my favorite opera, Erich Korngold’s The Dead City. This opera brings together the best of the three key elements that make up a great opera: an intensely dramatic story, lush romantic music, and visual opulence. 

The Story of The Dead City

Book cover features the title Bruges-la-morte above a drawing of a gothic building.
Georges Rodenbach’s novella Bruges-La-Morte
Source: Goodreads

While opera is usually filled with silly stories of mistaken identity and outlandish plot twists, that is not the case with The Dead City. The story is believable in every way and is based on the 1892 novella Bruges-la-Morte, so it features the era of Sigmund Freud.

Paul is a painter living in Bruges, Belgium who spends his days mourning the death of his beloved wife Marie. But one day, he meets a young woman, Marietta, who is an exact likeness of Marie. He becomes completely obsessed with Marietta, convinced that his dead wife has come back to life. Over the course of their relationship, Paul becomes more distrusting and Marietta beings to taunt him over his obsession with Marie. I won’t reveal the ending…you’ll have to experience it for yourself.

The Music of The Dead City

Korngold began writing The Dead City in 1916 and it premiered in 1920, during the era of Puccini, Strauss, and Mahler—the last of the great romantic composers. Think of Strauss’s masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier, Mahler’s orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde, and the great twentieth-century works of Puccini (Tosca, Madame Butterfly, and Turandot) all rolled up into one. Korngold uses lush and emotionally expressive musical language which tugs at your heart and brings you close to the intensity of this extraordinary opera. The first act duet is one of the most beautiful duets ever written for tenor and soprano (Paul and Marietta), and the second act aria for the character of Fritz is one of the most coveted arias for baritone.

Of course, Korngold is best known as a composer of film scores in the late 1930’s and 1940’s, so you can expect extremely dramatic orchestration from a seventy-four-piece orchestra in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House pit! Listen to the music from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) to get a better idea of Korngold’s style.

The Setting of The Dead City

Drawing of a woman in a long peach-colored dress with ruffles and a blue shawl.
Costume sketch for The Dead City
Source: Robert Perdziola

While this opera is rarely performed in the U.S., it is frequently produced in European opera houses, particularly those found in German-speaking countries. Frequently, these productions take an edgy and contemporary approach to the work, but our new production will remain close to the era of the source material.

The sets and costumes designed by Robert Perdziola reflect the 1890’s period in which the novella was written, including all the elegance and opulence of the latest Paris fashions of the time. The set is a combination of architectural landmarks of Bruges and the room Paul keeps as a shrine to the late Marie. This will be grand opera at its finest and a visual feast for your eyes.

Make a New Year’s resolution for 2023 to expand your knowledge and enjoyment of opera and take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this rare operatic gem. I guarantee you will not be disappointed!

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